Birding by the numbers

06/29/2013 7:05 AM

06/29/2013 7:06 AM

I can’t tell you how excited I was the first time I saw a butter butt. Laugh if you will, but after 30 years of bird watching, it was the first time I had spied the yellow-rumped warbler that, along with a flock of his friends, stopped for several days by a nearby stream on their annual migration to their Canada breeding range.

While I will never attempt a big year (a competition among birders to find who can see or hear the largest number of species within a single year), I enjoy adding new species to my life list of birds I have been able to identify.

Bird watching is a relatively inexpensive hobby, unless you plan your travels around the sport. A good pair of binoculars and a decent field guide are really all you need to participate. But fair warning: If you aren’t careful, it can begin to take over many aspects of your life.

I never travel without my binoculars, field guide and camera. And we generally try to get in at least one bird-watching experience in places that have different kinds of birds than Northeast Ohio, where we live.

I have tried to analyze why I got so interested in bird watching. In the 1980s I had a huge picture window built in my kitchen so I could monitor a feeding station. I remember how excited I was when shortly after, an American kestrel and an Eastern towhee showed up.

I have no idea why I get a thrill when I hear the monk parakeets jabbering in the treetops by the beach at Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla., or see the red ballooning throat of a magnificent frigatebird looking for a mate near Flamingo in the Everglades.

In 2007, the Forest Service published the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment: Bird Watching Trends in the United States, 1994-2006, that estimated the number of birders — from the casual to the highly committed — at 81.4 million people. This includes people who travel at least a mile from their homes to view birds, or who try to identify them regularly at their homes.

According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Study, birders contribute $32billion in retail sales annually. This represents money spent on field guides, binoculars, bird food, houses, boats, transportation, guide costs and other direct birding expenses. Americans spend upward of $3billion a year on birdseed, and, after gardening, it’s the second most popular hobby in the country, according to the study.

The average birder is 49 years old and has a better-than-average income and education. She is slightly more likely to be female, and highly likely to be white and married. There is also a good chance that this birder lives in the northern half of the country in a small city or town.

Montana has the most birders with 44 percent, and Hawaii has the least with only 9 percent of bird-watching residents.

With so many people involved in the sport, you have to believe they get something from the activity, even if they are like me and haven’t quite figured out what it is.

I do know I love the hunt and the challenge of collecting enough field markers to identify each new bird I see. I can appreciate that when birdwatchers aim at a bird, it is with a camera and not a gun. My husband and I don’t mind spending hundreds of dollars on birdseed each year just for the privilege of viewing them through our windows. And I don’t really mind too much that their droppings have killed several beautiful rhododendrons that had the misfortune to be growing under their feeders.

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