Who Are We?

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently released their report, “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis”. This document offers interesting insight into the popularity and demographics of birding.

Birder is defined rather broadly for the purposes of this report. A birder is someone who has driven at least a mile for the primary purpose of watching birds or someone who closely watches and tries to identify birds around the home. People who happen to see birds while mowing the lawn or kayaking do not qualify as birders.

The report indicates that 48 million of us, 16 years of age or older, are birders. That number translates to 21% of the North American adult population. Backyard birders include 42 million birders. Twenty million birders travel to see birds.

The average birder is 50 years old. Only 8% of citizens between 16 and 24 years of age and only 13% of citizens between 25 and 34 years old are birders. For citizens above 55, birding is more popular with 27% of this age group participating.

The data show a clear pattern of birding participation rate increasing with income level. Birding interest increases with education as well. Only 12% of citizens without a high school degree are birders while 28% of college graduates are birders. Female birders outnumber male birders, 54% to 46%.

Birding is primarily an activity of white people. Over 24% of white citizens classified themselves as birders, contrasting with 8% for Hispanics, 6% for African-Americans and 7% for Asians.

One might expect that people who live outside of major urban areas would be more likely to be birders. That expectation is borne out by the survey. Only 17% of citizens in major urban areas are birders compared to 27% of Americans who live in townships under a population size of 250,000.

The popularity of birding varies greatly among the 50 states. I am pleased to report that Maine with a 39% participation rate is second only to Montana with a 40% participation rate. Other high-ranking states are Vermont (38%), Minnesota (33%), Iowa (33%), South Dakota (32%) and New Hampshire (32%). Birding is least popular in Hawaii (10% participation rate). Four of our most bird-rich states (Florida, Arizona, California and Texas) are near the bottom of the list with participation rates of 17% or lower. Lots of out-of-state birders do visit these states.

Changes to North America bird names

The American Ornithologists Union (AOU) publishes the official Check-list of North American Birds. North America is defined broadly as all countries from Panama north. The Caribbean Islands, Bermuda and the Hawaiian Islands are included as well.

The most recent Check-list, the seventh edition, was published in 1998. Scientific and common names are given for each species along with a brief habitat description and a textual description of the geographic distribution.

The AOU has a Check-list Committee that is responsible for updating the Check-list. Bird distributions change. Ornithological research, especially the analyses of DNA, forces ornithologist to reassess the classification of birds at the genus, family and order level.

The most recent supplement to the Check-list was just published in the Auk, the journal of the AOU. Most of the changes pertain to Central American species. However, some changes are made to birds that occur in Maine. I will restrict my discussion of the changes to those birds. You may wish to update your field guide.

The scientific name of the Boreal Chickadee is changed from Poecile hudsonica to Poecile hudsonicus.

Recent DNA analyses have shown that some of the birds formerly classified as tanagers (family Thraupidae) are actually closer to the cardinals and their relatives (family Cardinalidae). The tanagers that occur in Maine are in this group. So now, Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager and Western Tanager should be reclassified into the cardinal family. The committee stopped short of changing the common names. Now we are left with the confusing situation that a Scarlet Tanager is not really a tanager.

In an earlier decision, the Check-list Committee split the old Sharp-tailed Sparrow into two species, the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow and Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Both nest in Maine. That decision is supported by subsequent research but the common names are a mouthful. The committee has changed the names to Saltmarsh Sparrow and Nelson’s Sparrow, respectively.

Lastly, the genus Carduelis contained a number of the small finches. That genus is now split into several genera. For Maine species, change Common Redpoll to Acanthis flammea, Hoary Redpoll to Acanthis hornemanni, Pine Siskin to Spinus pinus and American Goldfinch to Spinus tristis.

[First published September 9, 2009]