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Every five years, the U.S. Census Bureau conducts the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Sponsored by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), the 2016 survey is currently underway. When it wraps up in 2017, results from three waves of in-depth interviews will reveal U.S. wildlife-related recreational activities and expenditures — including habits of the nation’s birders.

Since 2001, when the Survey added specific questions about observing wild birds, an FWS birding addendum has followed the primary report. While a release date for the next “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis” is still undetermined, past timing points to sometime in 2018. In the meantime, insights from birding experts and the 2011 analysis provide an inside look at trends to expect.

Who and what is a birder?

Definitions of birders and birding differ, but the FWS takes a conservative approach to the people and activities that qualify. Chance bird encounters and casual observations don’t make a birder. Instead, the Survey defines a birder as someone who has traveled more than one mile specifically to watch wild birds or has actively watched and tried to identify wild birds at home.

47 million Americans aged 16 and older actively engage in birding activities.”
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Under the FWS definition, the 2011 Survey found that more than 47 million Americans aged 16 and older actively engaged in birding activities. That’s roughly 20 percent of the nation’s population. While the overall number of wild bird observers changed little from 2006, fewer birders were traveling away from home. Of those surveyed, 88 percent did their birding at home.

Jeffrey Gordon, president of the American Birding Association (ABA), explains that birders still want to travel and see birds in exotic places, but there’s an increasing emphasis on what birders call their own “patch.” This might be their yard, a specific park or another area close to home, where they watch and track visiting birds. “There’s more and more focus on patch birding,” Gordon says. “There’s an extra thrill to find a new bird in your patch.” That bodes well for businesses that serve at-home birders.

The changing face of birding

The profile of an “average” U.S. birder according to the 2011 Survey sounds a lot like your traditional garden customer. She’s 53 years old with an above-average income and education, and is increasingly likely to reside in an urban area. But Erin Carver, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Senior Economist and author of the birding addendums since 2006, notes that millions of U.S. birders don’t fit that description. Signs indicate that birders are becoming much more diverse.

88% of those surveyed do their birding at home, which is due to an increasing emphasis on what birders call their own 'patch'”.
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Daniel Lebbin, vice president of international programs for the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), believes more and more people are watching birds in some capacity. “Birding can be done anywhere, and there’s a very low cost to enter into it,” Lebbin says. “It’s particularly growing among high school age and younger.” He adds that organizations devoted just to birdwatching are becoming more accessible, leading to greater birder diversity.

Gordon credits the internet and digital photography with opening birding to a broader audience. Through social media, newcomers can tap into the help and camaraderie of experienced birders around the world. “One thing so amazing about birding is how shareable it is,” he explains. One example is the ABA Facebook group, “What’s This Bird?” (www.facebook.com/groups/whatsthisbird). Anyone can join, post bird images, and get whatever level of help they desire, whether that’s an outright I.D. or clues to refine their skills.

Birders and their buying power

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As IGCs with robust birding segments know, birders look for new products to support and expand on their interest. The 2011 survey underscored the economic importance of items most at-home birders consider essential: Approximately 50.2 million Americans fed wild birds, spending $4.1 billion on bird food alone. Bird houses, nesting boxes and bird baths totaled an additional $970 million.

$7.5 billion: Estimated amount spent on birding-related equipment in 2011, up from $6.8 billion in 2006.”

Bird-related buying doesn’t end there. Spending on bird-related equipment — not including travel-related expenses — was estimated at more than $7.5 billion dollars, up from $6.8 billion in 2006. This includes expenditures such as binoculars, cameras, cases, clothing, field guides, maps and more.

One purchasing category not considered in these totals is plants. You may not think of plants as bird purchases, but birders make the connection. Gordon notes that patch birders quickly learn which seeds or other items attract which birds to their patch. They naturally pursue changes to make their patch more attractive. Gordon and Lebbin agree that plants — specifically native plants — help birders extend their patch list and serve a greater purpose.

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The conservation component

As interest in birding grows, so do some concerns about America’s birds. Roughly one-third of all North American bird species show some negative trend that’s a cause for concern. Lebbin stresses that this figure doesn’t equate to officially endangered or threatened species. This includes trends such as significant declines in otherwise abundant species, or slower than expected increases in rebounding populations. One example is the bobolink, above, namesake of at least one nursery. Though still plentiful, bobolink populations have dropped 50 percent over the past four decades, due in part to habitat loss.

988 million birds die annually from collisions with glass windows – just in the United States.”

While many people enjoy birding, Lebbin says that relatively few consider bird conservation. That may be changing, as more birders realize the contribution made by backyard habitats that support native birds and provide refuges when birds need to leave somewhere else. “Native plants are fantastic options,” Lebbin says. “They provide food, cover and nesting sites, and host a variety of insects to feed birds.” A greater variety of plants supports a more diverse bird community.

While habitat gardens represent a significant trend, other conservation-related purchases can help, too. ABC estimates that up to 988 million birds die annually from collisions with glass windows — just in the United States. More companies are now producing decals and other anti-collision products that won’t interfere with garden viewing or birdwatching, and could bring conservation into IGC birding products.

How and where IGCs and customers can start

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Lebbin encourages people to just “Get started!” and go birding with someone. “Make birdwatching part of your lifestyle,” he says. IGCs can tap into local birding clubs, free bird walks, birding seminars, conservation groups and internet resources — the enthusiasm is contagious. “There are a million ways to bird,” Gordon says. “It’s becoming more widespread, more connected, and more exciting. Anyone can become a fan.”

Jolene is a freelance writer and former hort professional based in Madison, Wis. She is a frequent contributor to GIE Media Horticulture Group publications.