If you read this blog regularly then I know you enjoy seeing wild birds wherever they may be, but especially those you can see close to your home, through your windows. You probably have one or more bird feeders set up around your yard and spend your hard earned money keeping them filled, at least during the winter months. We derive so much pleasure from this simple hobby that it is easy to assume everyone in the world would feel and do the same, but we in the U.S. are the exception, not the norm.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service one study showed watching birds at feeders is the most popular form of enjoying wildlife in this country. More than 50 million people watch birds both at home and when traveling, based on findings of the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Most, if not all, were feeding wild birds each year, spending over 2.7 billion dollars in the process, and that doesn’t include the
millions spent on feeders, birdhouses and nest boxes!
Birding Festivals have grown more popular each year as people who watch birds at home seek new and exciting locations. These can be highly profitable events for those hosting the festival. In 2017 it was reported that the five day Space Coast Birding Festival generated close to $1.3 million. Back in 2011 it was noted that bird watching in the Rio Grande Valley brought in over $300 million to the local economy, as well as creating and supporting 4,407 full and part-time jobs annually.
Having traveled extensively in Europe, the Caribbean, South and Central America over the past 36 years, I have never seen anything like the bird feeding stations we Americans have established in our yards. One of the reasons I believe we are so different from the rest of the world is because of the way we live – in individual homes, with green space around us. The vast majority of the people in the world today live in urban areas, with housing concentrated in high rise buildings. Even if people are lucky enough to have a balcony, they are very unlikely to see or be able to attract songbirds. The most commonly found birds in cities are pigeons (rock doves) and English sparrows – two types of songbirds best known for the messes they create when they gather on buildings.
Over the years we have welcomed international guests to our home, many of whom were high school or college students. We like to find out if nature is as important in their lives and cultures as it is in ours, so when I ask, “Do people watch birds in your country?” there is often a noticeable and somewhat embarrassing silence and shaking of heads. One boy from Mexico said, “People mostly shoot them”. A girl from South Korea explained, “In my country it is illegal to feed birds.” The surprised look on my face prompted her to explain that there are problems with pigeons and I understood why there would be a ban.
We are so fortunate in this country to have an abundance of space and wealth that allows us to bring wildlife close to our homes, where we might be entertained by and learn from them. I feel sorry for the billions of people in the world who never have the opportunity to witness nature in this simple and daily manner, but what concerns me even more is their appreciation and understanding of our connectedness to nature. It is well understood that you cannot care for that which you do not know.
Americans, having developed a fondness for birds are more likely to read and study the habits and habitats of these animals, both those that remain with us year around and those that will be returning north in the coming months. We begin to comprehend the need for diverse habitats all along their migratory routes and in their winter homes. And though we cannot be in those places to protect the birds, we support conservation and environmental organizations that do. This involves financial investment and sacrifice, but we do it, with a vested interest in having the birds return each year to our forests, fields and lakes.
If people never see any birds besides pigeons and sparrows how can they be expected to ever think about the
necessity of healthy wetlands and intact forests? It is a question that haunts me, because it is so large and complicated. All I know for sure is that as we care about and feed the birds through the winter months, we must be proactive whenever possible to threats in other parts of the bird’s range – here in the U.S., as well as beyond our borders. So welcome the migrants as they begin to return later this month, but then keep them in your thoughts and actions even when they leave once again.
By Kate Crowley