Birding (Yes, Birding) Is a Multi-Billion Dollar Ecotourism Industry
Millions of birders around the world set out to catch a rare glimpse of plumage, a bold stroke of color, or to hear an unusual song—and they're changing the face of tourism.
I will never forget the first time I got lost in the eyes of a ruby-throated hummingbird. It was late in spring seven years ago and I was writing out on our patio. Flashes of her green back cut through our garden, darting from petunia to petunia. My eyes shifted up from the laptop, finding her only inches away. We briefly stared quietly at each other, frozen in time at 53 beats per second.
Over the years, while I’ve added feeders—seed, suet, and nectar—and enthusiastically packed my camera and binoculars for the nearest nature preserve, I’ve found that compared to serious birders, I’m still just a novice birder, or maybe just an avid bird-lover.
Determined birders are ornithological junkies, compelled to travel long distances by their love of spotting a rare species. In fact, they are part of a growing multi-billion dollar ecotourism industry. And birding, as it turns out, is not only the perfect excuse for travel, but also part of a practical global conservation effort to help both birds and humans thrive.
It is estimated that over $800 billion is spent a year in outdoor recreation in the United States, with birdwatching having an economic benefit of $41 billion dollars. Roughly $17.3 billion is spent annually in wildlife-watching trip-related expenses in the U.S., with more than 20 million Americans taking birding-specific trips.
One of those birding hotspots is the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, which I visited last October as part of a press trip to ride an extensive new cycling trail system.
This is a region that closely combines both the dry prairie landscape and the colorful tropical palette of the Gulf, bringing in a spectacle of birds that not only call this home, but make this a regular stop during migration. Here I first experienced the end-of-day cacophonous descent of red-crowned parrots into the trees.
Every November, the Birding Festival centered in Harlingen, Texas, brings in 2 million over a five-day event, with each birder hoping to tick off a large number of unique and exotic species on their avian bucket-list.
It was on this cycling trip that I met Dorian Anderson, one of the industry’s most passionate birders, with an incredible photographic eye. As we biked the region’s rail-trails, I could hear him identifying the call of birds.
Anderson is not your typical birder, however. With a doctorate in developmental genetics and post-doctoral work under his belt, he found himself falling in love with birding. In 2014, he spent a year on his bike traveling the country finding birds and blogging about it—he is currently writing a book about the experience.
“I wanted out from my career,” Anderson tells me, “and the bike trip was something sufficiently grand, sufficiently different, and sufficiently individualistic that I could go and do it. I don’t really work well in structures. That’s not really my style.”
Anderson figured that if he connected seven key areas across the country at the right time of the year, he could get in a list of 600 species. So he embarked on his road trip with no real cycling experience, getting 40 flats—until he finally bought kevlar tires. He rode in deep snow below freezing temperatures, was attacked by dogs, hit by a vehicle, and nearly struck by lightning. But he did meet fellow birders along the way, who helped him with supplies, places to stay.
“From an ecotourism standpoint,” says Dorian Anderson, “the Lower Rio Grande Valley has a great product. Birders are looking for species you can’t see in other places and the Rio Grande Valley is so good because you can see all of these Mexican birds there.” Anderson annually leads group tours for the festival.
Birders who travel large distances tend to do it in more traditional ways—they either fly into places like the Rio Grande Valley or take a road trip. They also tend to be baby boomers, those who are in a place in life that allows for disposable income and prolonged travel.
Since it brings in money, ecotourism is frequently seen as an incentive for protecting habitats and species.
“This is particularly true with birding ecotourism,” says Matthew Jeffery, the director of programs and deputy director (international) at the National Audubon Society, “because birding ecotourists typically have a lighter footprint from not wanting to disturb the birds and are often pioneers for furthering conservation projects to protect the habitats of wild and rare bird species.”
To that end of protecting habitats, organizations like the National Audubon Society are working on building birding-based ecotourism in developing countries. It is intended to be a win-win for those living there, protecting the area’s natural treasures and providing income.
“This can be seen in the Northern Colombia Birding Trail project from Audubon and its partners—Patrimonio Natural, the Asociación Calidris, and support from USAID,” says Jeffery. (This last summer, Anderson also helped the National Audubon Society develop birding itineraries for Colombia.)
Colombia is a birder paradise, with over 1900 bird species—more than anywhere else on the planet, with several only found in certain regions of the country. The country is the only home for eight species of hummingbird, including the stunning shimmering-green and purple-bearded Buffy Helmetcrest.
“This project trained 43 local guides with environmentally focused practices,” says Jeffery, “20 of which worked in bird-based tourism, and resulted in 53 percent of those working in bird-based tourism seeing an increase in their income.”
Projects like this create partnerships with local governments and by focusing on communities near important habitats, they help to form what he says are “buffer communities,” where they are “able to strengthen their involvement in conservation often resulting in a reduction of habitat degradation and sometimes restoration.”
Due to Audubon’s pragmatic approach, which builds its local programs off of trade-offs and economic incentives with local governments and representatives, they have not been without criticism from other conservationist organizations who find it too compromising.
Yet they have taken an approach that intends to move the needle when they can.
Birding ecotourism in smaller economies like Colombia becomes a way not only to find rare birds—at least for a Northern American or European birder—but also to use global adventures in lush natural habitats to infuse the dollars into developing regions through lodges or tour guides, making natural conservation efforts worthwhile to communities.
You don’t have to travel far, however, to find stunning birds—your backyard will do fine.
Jeffery notes that many in the United States DIY their birding. (In my own backyard, for example, I can find upwards of 20 species of birds—including goldfinches, cardinals, woodpeckers, and nuthatches—all at one time in the spring.)
Within communities across the country, it is frequently possible to find birding festivals within a short driving distance. These festivals help to bring in outside dollars.
In Northwest Ohio, for example, where habitat restoration projects and wildlife refuges are getting attention, birding has grown in leaps and bounds, making festivals like The Biggest Week in American Birding possible.
“The Biggest Week in American Birding festival, which will mark its tenth year next May, has put our region on the map internationally as one of the premier birding destinations in North America,” says Scott Carpenter, the director of public relations for Metroparks Toledo.
The festival is a chance to find the mass migration of approximately 20 colorful warbler species in one fell swoop, including water birds like egrets and the elegant great blue heron. Venturing away from these marshlands to the local woodlands, and an array of woodpeckers from the downy and hairy to the iconic red-crested pileated are possible.
“Over 20 years ago,” says Carpenter, “when I was an outdoors columnist for newspapers, birders and tourism professionals talked about the spring songbird migration and how it was the best kept secret in our region.”
When he would travel to Leamington, Ontario, he’d find banners along the streets welcoming birders.
“I found it strange that the south shore of Lake Erie didn’t receive that kind of notice,” Carpenter tells me. “After all, we have the same birds, earlier, and fantastic access to public lands where people can enjoy them. So, a few years ago, when I saw ‘Welcome Birders’ on banners lining the streets in my hometown of Oregon, Ohio, it was a dream realized. Black Swamp and Biggest Week made that happen.”
Sponsored by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory at Magee Marsh, the festival drew in approximately 90,000 people from 52 countries (six continents) in the spring of 2018, with birding bringing $40 million into the region annually.
The area hopes to keep capitalizing on these efforts, making others aware of their natural resources through new bike and hiking trails in the park system, camping, and water kayaking trails along the Maumee River, and the development of the Treehouse Village set to have its first guests next year.
Whether it’s birding festivals in Northwest Ohio or the Rio Grande Valley, or even hawk migrations in Cape May, NJ, or millions of sandhill cranes along the Platte River in Nebraska, birding ecotourism is big business in the United States and an emerging industry powerhouse for developing countries.
Globally, millions of birders like me set out for a chance to see that rare plumage, that bold stroke of color, or to hear that unusual song—even if not every species will visit you face-to-face and acknowledge your existence, like my hummingbird did.