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No, familiarity with Wild Turkey doesn’t count

September 18, 2009

I and the Bird #109 is up at Madras Ramblings


In the category of “odd interpretations of questionable data”, comes this recent article from the Outdoor Central News Network.  Apparently, birding is a popular hobby for Southerners.  As a Southerner, by virtue of my street address more than anything else, this seems like a strange thing to take from a recent FWS survey.  But, from the article:

According to this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, an estimated 33 percent of Southerners bird-watch as of 2006, compared with 20 percent of Americans nationwide participating in the pastime.

Before we go on, a couple things need to be addressed.  First, that the data comes from a recent report put out by the FWS that has already come under some fire in birding communities  due to its, shall we say, broad interpretation of what constitutes “birding”.  Second, any critique I have of the study methodology should in no way be considered as a failure to endorse the policies suggested by the folks interviewed, including the idea that tourism departments should recognize a birding element and appeal specifically to birders.  That’s great stuff that leads to more environmental minded policy.  Birders tend to have disposable income and are often willing to spend it.  The sooner people realize that then better for us, but especially for the birds we love and the ecosystems they live in.

At the same time, however, why is the South seemingly such a birder-rich environment? Because I’ve lived here for six years now and haven’t seen it.  I wonder, given the aforementioned liberal interpretation of what makes a birder, if the South’s already high proportion of hunters and fishermen has something to do with it.  If the definition of “birder” consists only of the ability identify a few species of birds, then most hunters would likely be able to count themselves amongst our ranks (those who consider hunting and birding separate activities notwithstanding).  This gets to the heart of the matter with the FWS report.  Birding is meant to describe a certain activity, typically traveling afield specifically to find birds.  If the definition is broadened to take into account incidental bird spotters, then the term has no meaning whatsoever from a policy perspective.

I suppose, though, that there’s a possibility that the study is correct, at least in a less precise way than it intends.  The region of the United States considered the South has no shortage of phenomenal birding spots.  Florida is rightly considered one of the ABA area’s crown jewels, throw Texas in and you’ve got two unarguably great birding destinations.  I’d put parts of North Carolina right up against them too, though admittedly I’m biased.  All of this considered, I’d accept that the South might have a higher percentage of bird-aware people, but real birders?  And a full 50% more than the rest of the country?  I’m not buying it.

But it’s a number to shoot for, no?

  1. September 18, 2009 9:30 am

    MMM if 33% of the southerners are birdwatchers, and 20% of the us population is birdwatching, you need to have something like 7-10% of birdwatchers in the north to make the maths right.

    I wonder what the sample size was….

  2. September 18, 2009 11:46 am

    laurent – “The South” only goes as far West as Texas. The other regional divisions are Northeast (19% birders), Midwest (27% birders), and West (21% birders).

    The weird thing about this is that only one southern state (Tennessee) is in their top ten states.

  3. Nate permalink*
    September 18, 2009 11:50 am

    @Laurent- I, too, wonder about the sample size among other issues with the survey.

    @John- I had wondered whether Texas was included in the “south” for this survey. If it is, simply having Florida and Texas birders and hotspots included could surely skew the results.

  4. September 18, 2009 12:08 pm

    maybe a rural area (never really been in the south, except Florida) is more likely to contain birdwatchers (potentially including anyone with a birdfeeder or hummingbird feeder) than the high densities cities of the north east?

    Another explanation is the high number of retired people in states like Florida. I mean, if you live in Florida, you have to see (I did not say necessarly “watch”) number of large birds (pelicans, waders). lots of retired and bored people + large birds = more people who declare themselves “birdwatchers”

    In midwest, though, you need a bit more effort, skills and optics to actually watch warblers and finches….

    just trying to find a logical explanation….

  5. September 19, 2009 1:09 pm

    Laurent’s got a point there, actually two:

    a) the retired people
    b) the birders in the midwest, particularly Michigan, must all be really EXCELLENT!

    Er, I was actually being serious about the a)-point. Never mind the b), it’s been a long day.

  6. September 20, 2009 1:26 am

    These studies always strike me as bizarre. If 27% of Midwesterners are birders, then the rural county I grew up in should have had ~600 birders. Even under the most generous definition of the term that could possibly be acceptable to most “real” birders, the true number couldn’t have been more than about 10 and by a more typical definition, only one or two. Pretty big disconnect there. The reality is, that if you have a feeder or bird house in your yard, you probably count, regardless of whether you can ID a single bird using them.

  7. Nate permalink*
    September 20, 2009 8:35 am

    @Laurent- I think you’ve hit on something there. Birdfeeders are almost certainly included. I could believe that 1/3 of the people have bird feeders.

    @Jochen- Yup, retired people have more bird feeders, and more time to bird. Both a likely contributors.

    @AB- Yeah, now that you mention it, people who feed birds are probably included. And there’s some justification for that, they do buy seed which could technically be considered money spent on birds. But when we’re considering the economic impact of birders as justification to protect important bird habitat, unfortunately the people we’d consider real birders, as in those that buy fancy optics and travel specifically for birds, have much less influence. So it’s a double-edged sword. If we want to protect birds, I guess we have to put up with these sketchy definitions. Which I can live with I suppose, but I’d still like to know our real impact.

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