There are some activities that nearly everyone takes part in: backyard grilling, New Year’s Eve parties, politics, photography, music, sports, etc. Some might call these mainstream – activities that the majority of people partake in year after year no matter what their demographical makeup is.
Arguably, birding is popular – there are several bird-only focused magazines, birding groups, birding tour companies, binocular companies, tons of bird books, and more. But unless you hang out only with birders, you’re bound to get that quizzical look when you remark that you spent last Saturday birding.
If you say you’re a baseball fan, no one glazes over; mention you read a lot of murder mysteries, people don’t ask “What are those?”.
But, birding has no boundaries – birds are everywhere in all seasons of the year; going birding requires very little – sometimes bins aren’t even required. Ever go golfing without clubs? There are very few hobbies out there that are so limitless as birding.
What defines a birder?
For this discussion, birder is synonymous with bird-watcher (and birding with bird-watching). There are technical differences that have been covered before but for now the terminology is unimportant.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (the only real birder survey out there) uses loose definitions for birders, basically saying that anyone that views birds in a setting other than at the zoo or a pet in their home is a birder. For us, we use a stricter definition – a birder is someone who ACTIVELY seeks out different birds in different places with the goal to OBSERVE and attempt to IDENTIFY those birds.
There are obviously hardcore birders (just like there are intense sports fans, obsessed music lovers, etc.) but the “basic” birder is someone who cares about finding birds and hopefully in doing so, cares about their environment.
So can birding ever become mainstream? What would happen if an ABA convention was held in Chicago and had to be housed at Soldier Field to accommodate the 50,000 birders attending? What if there was an event called the Petersons where all the top birders in the field were nominated for awards and they rolled out the green carpet for them? Paparazzi would be all over, digiscoping, setting up in camo-blinds.
On a more serious note though, what would happen if habitat continues to be destroyed to make way for shopping malls and huge houses people buy, even though they can’t afford them? If the ranks of birders increases while land decreases, an obvious problem will occur. Local birding hotspots will be flooded with hundreds of birders constantly (unintentionally) disturbing birds trying to nest. The shear numbers would overwhelm the birds, further causing problems.
One of the great joys of birding is to go by yourself or in a small group. It would be hard to imagine trails packed with birders to see the normal fair of birds. (The busiest places I’ve been birding-wise have been High Island and Horicon Marsh, but those never felt crowded.)
However, if our theory works, birding going mainstream would be beneficial – an increase in birders would increase the amount of habitat conserved for birds, which would lead to more birds and more places for more birders!
So how would birding go mainstream?
First of all, birding can’t be thought of as some sort of joke or “weird” hobby. If you feel ashamed to call yourself a birder that’s too bad but suck it up and let it be known. There’s some high school students that play football in our cul-de-sac and they know full well that I’m a birder (the BIRDFRK license plate might help to give it away). They might think it’s geeky to like birds but that doesn’t change the fact that I can kick their butts at football. (Who’s the geek now?)
Be loud, be proud; there’s nothing dorky about enjoying nature and knowing about birds.
Second, enlist high-profile people to go birding. Not only could they provide a lot of exposure to bird conservation, but they also have the money to back it up!
Al Gore, where are your bins? Bill Gates, why not donate some cash to save bird habitat?
Third, get news channels to cover birding events. Christmas Bird Counts get a small blurb in our paper. Spring Bird Counts go unnoticed. Freakshows that murder people are breaking news stories while long-lasting conservation efforts are swept under the rug. What’s wrong with good news for a change?
Fourth, promote birding to kids of all ages. It is a shame when children would rather spend their free time indoors watching TV or playing video games than enjoying all the cool stuff outside. Birding isn’t that hard and even if a kid doesn’t want to use bins, being outdoors making a fort or digging in the dirt exposes them to the wonders of nature. Take them on a trail; show them a fox den, an Eagle’s nest or other clearly visible natural thing.
Kids love to learn new stuff whether they admit it or not; show them the way and they’ll be hooked forever!
Finally, don’t be an insular birder. It is our duty as birders, conservationists, naturalists, etc. to show ALL people we come in contact with the beauty of nature. Don’t harp about using eco-friendly lightbulbs, complain about their gas-guzzling SUV, or shame them for not properly recycling. Show them beautiful things and people will want to protect them.
It might sound selfish, but perhaps the number one reason we promote conservation is to create a better, more beautiful world for OURSELVES to enjoy. Numerous birds went extinct long before I was born and there was nothing I could do about it. Now there is. Help birding go mainstream!