April 10, 2011

Who’s birding? The distribution of watchers and wealth

The results of the 2011 Focus on Feeders were published this week. Focus on Feeders is a national event, sponsored here in Massachusetts by the Mass Audubon. The project asks Massachusetts volunteers to take note on a specific day of the single highest occurrence of a given species at their feeder. This data serves as an ongoing record of winter bird distribution and provides invaluable population information about the birds of Massachusetts. It is an event worth participating in.

In reviewing this year’s result maps something besides bird distribution seemed to leap of the page, namely the correlation between household income and participation in this bird watching event. Comparing the “Focus on Feeders 2011 Participants" map with the state map of average household income by zip code (statisticians may want to plug your ears) there seemed to be some correlation. This begs the question; can bird watching evolve beyond its legacy of a pastime for the wealthy?

Bird watching’s iconic demographic the“little old ladies” with gray hair, Brahmin accents, and L.L. Bean duck boots has giving way to the “boomer” generation, recent retirees, and active adults. Educated, affluent, and mobile this new generation of bird watchers has grown the “hobby” into one of the country’s largest. It is thrilling that bird watching is thriving with growing memberships, money spent on equipment, books and travel, and participation in citizen science initiatives like Focus on Feeders. All this is wonderful news for the field of bird watching.  

What this trend also marks is a stark reminder that the field needs to push harder into mixed income neighborhoods, to work with the young, urban, rural, and all other non-Suburban in-betweens. Core values need to be reinforced. Bird watching is more than knowing when to hop a plane to Texas to see trogons and motmots. Bird watching is time spent connecting to a larger ethos, building empathy for the natural world, and moving towards a personal ethic of global conservation. Bird watching takes the individual into solitary and secluded spaces allowing for reflection and breath. Bird watching is a doorway that opens both inwards and out and should be harnessed for its real world powers of transformation. These are powerful outcomes of an act as simple as looking up. With continued education and support there is no doubt that bird watching will fill the lives of people everywhere, in a moment of global crisis this is ever more crucial.

For more on promoting bird watching to new audiences please visit David Lindo’s website, Cornell’s Celebrating Urban Birds, the Bird Education Network, and Dave Magpiong’s Fledgling Birders Institute.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact: alexanderjosephdunn@gmail.com

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