John White
by on August 15, 2019
4,176 views

So, how popular is birdwatching? The short answer, birdwatching is incredibly popular! 

Millions of people are birdwatchers, with masses of clubs and groups in different countries across the globe — and as dull as it may seem to some, it is a great passion for many others. It has become one of the fast growing hobbies in North America, and in Canada more time is spent birdwatching than gardening! Birdwatching is now a multi-million dollar industry and one of the strongest magnetisms for ecotourism. 

In the US, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service compile a National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation every five years. Their most recent 2016 report estimates that there were 45.1 million birdwatchers (16 years or older) in the country. That is around 20% of the US population! Of these birdwatchers, nearly 40 million people spent 4 million days birdwatching around their homes and just over 16 million people spent 256,673 days birdwatching away from home. Furthermore, the report indicates that a staggering 57 million people participate in feeding wild birds in their gardens. (Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2016)

In the UK, birdwatching has overtaken fishing as the number one hobby and is the second largest source market for birdwatching tourism worldwide after the USA. The UK is also home to the largest bird organisation in Europe, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) with more than 1 million members and they claim that around 6 million United Kingdom residents are regularly engaged in birdwatching. (Source: CBI, 2015)

Birdwatching is also on the rise amongst the younger generation. No longer seen as just a hobby for the middle-aged, a nationwide survey of Britain’s hobbies and interests has discovered that 32 per cent of men aged between 16 to 25 have been birding. There is also an increasing number of young women getting into birdwatching, whilst online groups such as Next Generation Birders are frequently appearing. Celebrity fans like Damon Albarn, Elbow frontman Guy Garvey and Alex Zane is confirmation that birding has become an unlikely hipster craze. (Source: Telegraph.co.uk)

Isn’t there a difference between birding and birdwatching?

Although often used interchangeably, there is actually a difference between birding and birdwatching. Some may look at the above numbers with some scepticism and this would probably be due to how exactly birdwatching is classified. The recreational sport connected with birdwatching, called "birding," has one of the biggest followings of any leisure activity in the world.

The survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is referring to what most people would refer to as birdwatching. These are people who probably feed birds in their garden, may know a few local species of birds or at least take note when they see a new species of bird in their garden. This is how most people start birdwatching.

A birder, on the other hand, would watch birds in their garden and travel away from home to see specific birds. They would own a bird book and probably be able to independently identify a large proportion of locally occurring species. Birders are also very likely to keep a list of birds they have seen and also participate in submitting their bird sighting to citizen science projects. Simply put, one could say that birdwatchers look at birds whilst birders look for them.

A more granular look at birders

The 2011 version of the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation published by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service included an addendum that focused specifically on birdwatching in the United States, rather than the broader category of wildlife watchers. This granular look at birdwatching provides significantly more detail than the standard report. The following section will review a number of these metrics.

Birdwatching popularity amongst different age groups

Many people think that birdwatching is a hobby for the middle-aged or retirees. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, however, shows that in the US  this is not the case at all showing that over half of birders are under the age of 54 and about 17% of the population between the ages of 16 and 34. Recent articles published by the New York Times and on the National Audubon Society’s website state that the birding community is getting younger and becoming more diverse. Market research by The National Audubon Society has identified 9 million people between the ages of 18 and 35 “who share that blend of an interest in birds and environmental activism.” (Source: Birdwatching Daily)

There are a also great number of clubs, groups and events popping up that are specifically aimed at the younger generation, for example e-Bird’s ‘For Young Birders’ event which aims to bring together teenagers with a passion for birds and interested in pursuing a career in the field. Also enticing the younger set is the rise of technology; apps that keep track of birders’ checklists and rank users against each other, as well as online social networks such as Chirp and BirdFellow.

 

Birdwatching Participation Rate by Age Group
Birdwatching Participation Rate by Age Group

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011

 

Birdwatching popularity amongst different income groups

Birdwatching is more popular amongst higher income groups. It is not clear why this is the case but it could be due to lower income groups not necessarily living in leafy suburbs where there are an abundance of bird species, not being able to afford travel to suitable birdwatching habitat or possibly the high cost of birdwatching related equipment such as cameras and binoculars.

Historically, the birding world was often thought of as being pretentious and populated by the elitist leisure class. It is a recognised fact that those responsible for founding the birding community were wealthy. In addition to having the leisure time to appreciate nature, they were also the largest funders of conservation efforts. Thankfully, today this landscape is changing. The birding world has increased its diversity by age, sex and race and this increased diversity is in everyone's best interest to create more citizen scientists and widen support for the processes needed to protect birds and their habitats.

 

Birdwatching Participation Rate by Income Group
Birdwatching Participation Rate by Income Group

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011

 

Birdwatching popularity amongst different education groups

As with income, birdwatching becomes more popular with increasing levels of education. As there is a high correlation between education and income, it may be that birdwatching popularity amongst different education groups is simply a consequence of people’s disposable income. 

 

Birdwatching Participation Rate by Education Level
Birdwatching Participation Rate by Education Level

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011

 

Birdwatching popularity amongst different by gender

The obvious assumption would be that the majority of birdwatchers are men, however, you may be surprised to learn that 56% of birdwatchers are actually female. In fact, in recent years women are rising up against what some have seen as a cold and condescending culture in a male dominated birding environment. In recent years, women’s bird clubs have blossomed in at least six American states, four other countries, and online all aiming to welcome women into birding and empower them in the field and beyond. (Source: Olivia Gentile)

 

Birdwatching Participation Rate by Gender
Birdwatching Participation Rate by Gender

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011

 

It seems fair to say that there is plenty of evidence out there to support birdwatching as one of the world’s most popular hobbies, such popularity that today spans different generations, gender and race. Back-garden birding is certainly on the rise, and whilst the least expert birding there might be, it allows us the easiest of opportunities to get outdoors and connect with nature. Perhaps there is a birdwatcher within all of us.   (Source: Live Science)

 

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Posted in: Birding, Society