Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Birds without Birding

What could be more boring than watching bowling? Watching golf? Playing golf? Watching birding?

I have not seen the movie, yet. I will tomorrow. My wife and a friend have coaxed me into the investment.

Birders have debated the movie for months. A few birders went so far as predicting an epiphany for the American public. Here is an example from Texbirds a few weeks ago:

Seriously, now, I am sure that this movie will…prompt thousands (millions?) of non-birding moviegoers to investigate birding via the internet…Every birding group on this continent will benefit if we have "bird stuff" ready for these potential new birders.

The Big Year has grossed a wretched $6.5 million. The movie cost $57 million to make. March of the Penguins grossed $127 million worldwide, and $77 million in this country. Penguins cost $22 million to make. Avatar, an anaemic movie about fake nature, has grossed almost $3 billion worldwide. Facebook and Twitter references to The Big Year are nonexistent. There are no millions rushing to the web to learn about birding. How could so many be so wrong?

People are just not that into us. The tens of millions of bird people love birds without birding. The public can be reached through birds. Birding is a different matter.

Consider the skills needed to be a birder. Start with a grasp of science, geography, and the written word. Field guides and articles in Birding are written for the literate. Most Americans are not.

• Only 15% of Americans are fully literate, functioning at a level equivalent to a university undergraduate degree. The "average" American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level.
• Approximately 28% of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate.
• 70% of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.
• Nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 to 24 cannot find Iraq on a map.
• Half or fewer of young men and women 18-24 can identify the states of New York or Ohio on a map [50 percent and 43 percent, respectively].
• 27% of American adults read no books last year.

Birders use brains as well as eyes and ears. Birding is part sport and part mind twister. You become an accomplished birder through study, not training. Birding is learned and earned.

Watching birds is free. Becoming a birder is not. Birding takes time, money, and commitment. Look at any of the demographic studies of birders. Birders are well educated (the average being over 16 years of formal education) and relatively affluent.

Birding is also tied to the ability (or willingness) to think critically, to analyze the evidence and come to an independent conclusion. Birders gather evidence in the form of size, shape, colour, pattern, sound, and action, and arrive at a conclusion about the identity of the birds. If the bird is rare, we offer our evidence to other birders who make their own independent conclusions. A measureable number of Americans believe that Neil Armstrong did not land on the moon.

Birding also demands that you leave your cocoon and face the world outside. Between 20 and 30 million Americans (men, I am sure) play fantasy football, far more than are birders. There is no fantasy birding. There is no creature comfort that a birder will not forgo to see a target bird. How many recreations can you name where retching over the side of a boat is part of the rite of passage?

Birding is not for the masses; birds are. I am not concerned about the degree to which they care about us. I do worry a great deal, whether or not they care about birds and habitats. Birders should be advocates for birding. No one else is going to fight for someone else’s hobby. But birders also can introduce birds to the masses, to open that door slightly so that our neighbours can peek into nature and, perhaps, become bird people themselves. That, I suspect, is the best we can do.

Are we doing our best to invite our neighbours into an appreciation of birds sans birding? I love Marda Kirn's bus birding in Denver. Ted Floyd has expanded bare-naked birding to help people watch birds without the accoutrements of birding. Organizations such as the Black Swamp Bird Observatory invite the public to events such as banding days. The World Birding Centre conducts weekly bird walks at many of its locations. All of these efforts introduce people to birds.

Perhaps I am off base, but I see value in shifting the focus from birding to birds. Let's focus our outreach on connecting people to the resource, and let the recreation fight for itself. I am not worried about the future of birding; I suspect that it will continue to move forward, movie or not. But let's not lose the public's interest in birds, their emotional link to the outdoors.

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