If you ever wonder why so many American birders leaven their love of nature with a little self-loathing, look no further than the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts every five years or so. Many of our most puzzling statistics arise from this otherwise innocuous report. In fact, this is the source for the statistic — that approximately 71 million Americans are “bird watchers” — that has been a veritable iceberg to the Titanic of any birding-industry company that took the number at face value.

After enough time to consider that stat, I believe many of us have calculated personal estimates of the number of what can more accurately be called birders, at least for commercial purposes; I won’t share my figure, but will admit that it has far fewer zeroes. But that’s old news. The meme perpetuated by the newest National Survey is far more pernicious…

Wildlife watchers watch for free.


To clarify, our more generous brothers and sisters on the extractive side of the wildlife appreciation line pay for licenses, excise taxes, and of course, the mighty Duck Stamp. Birders pay bupkis.

I find statements like these offensive both practically and philosophically. Bird watchers definitely pay, even if our economic contributions are patently ignored.

1. As a discrete group (not considering population overlap), non-extractive wildlife watchers contribute more to the U.S. economy than either hunters or anglers:

2011 Fishing Expenditures: $41.8 billion
2011 Hunting Expenditures: $34 billion
2011 Wildlife Watching Expenditures: $55 billion

Obviously, birders are covering the costs associated with wildlife watching. And it is interesting to note that government does very little to subsidize the bird watching experience; state Departments of Natural Resources, for example, maintain plenty of trout fisheries to improve the angling experience, but not a single warbler aviary to add more diversity to spring migration!

Drill into the numbers and you’ll find that birders and wildlife watchers are making significant and growing contributions to various commercial sectors. Paul J. Baicich breaks it down in his Great Birding Projects newsletter:

…expenditures for some important bird-watching items have gone up considerably since 2006. For example, since 2006, binocular and spotting scope expenditures have increased from $654 million to $919 million (up 40%). Also since 2006, bird food sales have increased from almost $3.6 billion to almost $4.1 billion (up 21%). At the same time, nest box, feeder, and bird bath expenditures combined have gone up from $790 million to almost $970 million (up 23%).


2. Clearly, wildlife watchers as a block contribute more to the national economy than either hunters or anglers. One could also argue that our form of recreation drains far fewer government resources, though that is outside the scope of this argument. What chafes me is why otherwise sensible individuals can quote the previous statistics yet still feel emboldened to perpetuate the trope that wildlife watchers watch for free. It’s that damnable Duck Stamp.

The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, better known as the Duck Stamp, serves as both a migratory waterfowl hunting license and an entrance pass for National Wildlife Refuges where admission is normally charged. Even non-hunting wildlife watchers often purchase the Duck Stamp since most of the funds generated from stamp sales go directly into wetland conservation. Consequently, many prominent members of the U.S. birding community promote the annual purchase of Duck Stamps.

I’ve been against buying the Duck Stamp for a long time. In fact, my stance against it has firmed over time, especially in light of this newest National Survey. Proponents of non-hunter adoption of the Duck Stamp have painfully ignored the political realities of a government instrument and have consequently contributed to the marginalization of non-extractive wildlife watchers in America.

That was a mouthful, so I’ll clarify my point by picking on Paul Baicich, for whom I have a great deal of respect as a birder and conservationist. In his analysis of the National Survey, he states, “One of the quiet revelations of the survey is that while hunters and anglers continue to pay their way – through licenses, fees, stamps, and excise taxes – the more numerous wildlife watchers (including birders) do not.” And then his very next headline reads Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest, after which he exhorts birders to buy the Duck Stamp.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts together the National Survey, it ascribes zero dollars of Duck Stamp purchases to wildlife watchers. Zero. If you can find the statement in the National Survey that acknowledges that some of the Duck Stamp money comes from wildlife watchers, I’ll eat my beloved Midwest Birding Symposium hat (or more likely just some wild duck.) But that’s not going to happen.

So the statement that birders don’t pay is specious to the extreme when put forth by those who urge birders to pay in ways that are not counted.


This issue comes up again and again. Last year, we had a terrific discussion about the pros and cons of the Duck Stamp here. I look forward to more respectful and insightful debates. The fantasy of a birding stamp may be a pipe dream, but apparently that and an excise tax on optics and birdseed would be the only acceptable measure of economic contribution. Isn’t that ridiculous? Every birder I know contributes a lot of time and money to conservation. That money counts. We buy expensive gear and take lavish bird chasing junkets. That money counts. We sustain squirrel populations from coast to coast. Even that money counts, at least as much as the purchase of ammo, bait, and decoys.

Wildlife watchers in the United States spend a lot more money in a year on their collective activities than either hunters or anglers. So what basis exists for anyone to say they — we — don’t pay? I urge everyone to stop perpetuating the damaging, disreputable rumor that wildlife watchers watch for free.

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.