Can Birding Ever Become “Mainstream”?

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.

Cape May Warbler (left) and Ovenbird (right)
Cape May WarblerOvenbird
I can think of hundreds of words for birding and geeky is not one of them

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!

9 thoughts on “Can Birding Ever Become “Mainstream”?

  1. Thats what im trying here in Honduras. to make birding more a hobbie for people looking for a new experience in the outdoors…but to this moment only foreigners take part in such activities, just a couple of nationals in the club, there is a huge resistance to change in this sort of thing.

    Almost all birders in country are from the states and almost every birder that visits us is also from the States…..maybe in the US birding isnt mainstream but it sure is a powerful recreational hobbie for millions of Americans.

  2. Great points across the board. I think the publicity of events like the World Series of Birding really helps. Every May it receives pretty good coverage in newspapers and on the radio, but not so much on large TV markets. Even with that bit of publicity, I always get a lot more questions from non-birders about the event and they always seem to have a genuine interest in it.

    I went through a period where I didn’t tell people I was a birder. I’ve gotten over it and I enjoy explaining to people what it is. I always try to get them to come on a field trip. Hopefully one day that will work! 🙂

  3. Birding should be mainstream…I just don’t understand why ESPN had coverage of a Rock paper Scissors tournament (I am not making this up) but never covers the World Series of Birding. Local newspapers’ outdoors columnists are almost always hunting-oriented but far more people are birders than hunters.
    It’s enough to drive a birder crazy!

  4. Daniel – Keep up the good work of promoting birds in Honduras… I guess if only tourists come it isn’t too bad of a thing as long as they help conserve the habitat… I’m sure more local people will be interested as it grows!!

    Patrick – I’m glad that the World Series of Birding gets good coverage but since we are lacking big events like that in the Midwest, most people (and even many birders) have no idea what it is.

    Corey – Sadly, I have watched part of the Rock-Paper-Scissors, more out of dumbfoundedness. I wish ESPN would show a big birding event. I guess it just doesn’t hold the excitement as paper covering rock.


  5. Wow! That post was excellent-You expressed your points very well.-I talk about birding to whoever shows any interest.-I wouldn’t be worried about overcrowding the birding spots.-If not birders, there would just be other people to take our place in the same park.-I think birds are a little more tolerant than we give them credit for some times.-As long as we pass along a little bit of birding ethics to new birders.

  6. May I suggest one more point, and that is that all birders, from “hard-core” to “basic” should respect each other if we expect non-birders to respect us all.
    Not everyone can be a hard-core birder, for any number of reasons. And basic birders care just as much about birds and should not be looked down upon by those are able to or inclined to travel the world to find birds or those that can identify birds by song only.
    We’re all in this together – seeking out and/or attracting birds in order to enjoy the sight and sound of them. And hopefully, we all work to protect birds and the habitats they need.

  7. The Zen Birdfeeder – Good point! Birding should never get too elite, especially if we want it to go mainstream. All birders should be respected and respectful despite what skill level they are.

    It wasn’t too long ago that we became hard-core birders. We depend on sharing knowledge with other birders and never stop learning new things.

    Backyard habitats are really important, to resident birds as well as tired migrants.

  8. Birdfreak – Hats off to you and others like Mon@rch who welcome and support bloggers like me who cater to those that are not “hard-core” birders. I feel at home on your blog!

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