Thursday, July 16, 2009

Birders an Economic Force

Yesterday the US Fish and Wildlife Service released its annual report on wildlife watching in the United States. As in the past, the USFWS finds that birders make a significant contribution to the economy. According to the press release, birdwatchers represent a fifth of the population, and wildlife watching generates $36 billion per year. Birding is most popular among residents of Montana, Maine, Vermont, Minnesota, and Iowa.

The report is based on data collected through a survey of anglers, hunters, and wildlife watchers in 2006. Potential participants are identified by the Census Bureau and then interviewed in more detail by the USFWS. Data collected through the survey informs decision-making by federal and state wildlife agencies and national conservation organizations.

So what can we learn about birdwatchers from the report (pdf)? First, there are a lot of us; the USFWS estimates that 48 million Americans watch birds. The report splits self-identified birdwatchers into two groups: people who observe and identify birds around home and people who travel at least a mile from home to see birds. Not surprisingly, the number who travel is much smaller than the total; only 20 million travel to see birds. Second, birdwatching is most popular among older age brackets. People in my age bracket are only half as likely to pick up binoculars are people in the older two. If most birdwatchers are watching birds around their homes, this age split makes sense; older people are more likely to own homes and have control over things like birdfeeders and plantings that make backyard birding easier.

Birders are also likely to have better-than-average income and a college education. 54% of birdwatchers are women, and 88% are white. None of those are likely to be surprises. The chart that breaks down birders by residence shows that almost half of birders live in major metropolitan areas, but rural areas have far higher participation rates.

The report also breaks down participation by state; the top states have participation rates between 35% and 40%. My state, by contrast, has a below-average participation rate of 14%. This may reflect the urban bias against birding as chunks of New Jersey belong to two of the top six metropolitan areas. (You can find your own state's statistics on page 7 of the report. Feel free to leave comments about birding in your own state.)

The survey also probed what types of birds that birders are watching and how often they do it. Waterfowl are the most likely to be watched on trips away from home and draw interest from 77% of birders. Raptors and songbirds draw less (but still significant) interest.

Finally the report attempts to estimate how much birdwatching contributes to the economy. In 2006, birdwatchers spent an estimated $12 billion on birding trips; most of that consisted of money for food and transportation. In addition, birdwatchers spent almost $24 on equipment, such as optics, cameras, birdfeeders and food, camping equipment, birding publications, and membership dues. Needless to say, this economic output represents a valuable revenue source for the businesses and states that choose to cater to it.

Every time the USFWS releases one of its reports on wildlife-related recreation, it generates a certain amount of controversy in email lists and the blogosphere regarding how the USFWS classifies birders. The usual argument runs along the lines that the true number of birders is much smaller because the USFWS employs such a broad definition of what constitutes bird watching. Traveling a mile from home at least once in the past year is not really the same thing as hitting the refuges every week and chasing state and continental rarities. Some also raise the question of how many birds these self-identified birdwatchers can actually identify or whether they know what they're looking at. Finally, the membership in conservation organizations and participation in the Christmas Bird Counts is usually a good bit less than the USFWS estimates.

To a certain extent, I see the point of these critiques. There are certainly gradations of skill and commitment among active birders. The USFWS could probably do a better job of delineating these differences. However, I believe that on the whole the critiques are misguided. The point of these surveys is not to settle internal debates among avid birders or provide marketing data for the birding industry. Instead, the primary goal is to provide federal and state wildlife agencies with data about who is visiting refuges and why they are there, so that agency staff can better serve the public. To that end, a broad definition is useful, as it shows that people with an interest in birds are the largest single constituency for wildlife-related recreation. Bird and conservation organizations ought to embrace this definition and use it to provide maximum leverage in their dealings with wildlife agencies and politicians.

The demographic breakdowns should also be useful for conservation organizations. It shows both where birding has been successful and where it has opportunities for growth (young people, urban areas, minorities). I see little reason think that the demographics reported by the USFWS are inaccurate, even for much stricter definitions of "birder."

Note: Charts are screenshots from the USFWS report.