According to the most recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2006) 20% of Americans are identified as birders and contribute $36 billion to the U.S. economy. This trend is not confined to the United States as these numbers are proportionately consistent and rising worldwide.
Many national and provincial parks as well as municipalities are cashing in on birders. Money generating birding events and festivals take place in various locations throughout the year. For instance, Point Pelee schedules their Festival of Birds annually in early May, taking advantage of spring migration. This festival attracts 45,000 people to the area over a three week period, pumping thousands of dollars into the national park and local economy. The annual Hawkwatch located at Hawk Cliff in Port Stanley, Ontario attracts thousands of birders each September, maintaining the town’s economy long after the hoards of beach goers have vacated following Labour Day.
Granted, these two festivals have been operating for many years and have ideal geographic locations behind them, but why doesn’t London, Ontario attempt to attract more birders or have a festival? With seven public ESAs, Fanshawe Conservation Area, the Thames River and the many city parks along its banks, London has no shortage of bird habitat and birds. I believe the city is missing out on an excellent opportunity. With careful planning and promotion, birders would be attracted to London to see our beautiful nature and spend money while here.
Visiting all the fantastic birding locations in one day would be a stretch, so local hotels and restaurants would benefit. Retail sales would increase as the influx of birders visit our local shops and explore downtown. These nature enthusiasts could enjoy the nightlife by taking in a game or concert at Budweiser Gardens, a show at the Grand Theater or a drink at a local pub. This is a whole new demographic of tourist that is virtually untapped by the City of London.
Birders do an unbelievable job at spreading the word about great birding locations. With websites like eBird and others designed specifically for reporting bird sightings, news of rare or unusual sightings travels fast. As word spreads, birders quickly rush to these locations, often traveling hundreds of kilometers in hopes of seeing a new species for their life list.
This was apparent in London last February after I reported two Red-throated Loons on the Thames River. After news of these loons spread (the first reported sighting in Middlesex County since 1898) birding traffic along the Thames River greatly increased. The following day, the majority of people walking the Thames were birders, toting binoculars, spotting scopes, and digital cameras; all panning the river hoping to catch a glimpse of these rare loons. In speaking with fellow birders, where they were from often came up. People traveled from all over Southwestern Ontario and even crossed the border from the U.S. in search of these birds.
For local birders, the wonderful waterfowl that frequents the Thames River during winter months is no secret. The river’s current prevents water from freezing in many sections, attracting several species of diving ducks. Mergansers, Common Goldeneye, Canvasbacks, and Redheads are among the species observed during winter months. These ducks feed on fish and other aquatic life, making open water key to their survival. As northern lakes and areas of the Great lakes freeze, these birds move inland in search of food. Large concentrations of waterfowl are found in various sections of the Thames within the city. To view some of the beautiful waterfowl photographed on the Thames River, take a look at my gallery.
Winter would be the perfect time for London to host a birding festival highlighting waterfowl along the Thames River. With proper planning, promotion and time the economic benefit to our city could be huge. Birders in Ontario regularly flock to the shores of Lake Ontario in Burlington and Toronto, as well as the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers during winter months in search of waterfowl. Why isn’t London attempting to attract them here? In the case of a waterfowl festival on the Thames, two thirds of the equation is already solved. The river is here, the birds will be here; it is simply a matter of attracting more birders, specifically birders from outside London to visit.
Bird festivals not only generate revenue and boost local economies, they help preserve habitat. With established money generating festivals, governments place more priority into protecting and preserving the area in which they are held. Point Pelee National Park is a perfect example of this. A Thames River waterfowl festival would increase the use of our river in its natural state, having long term economic and environmental benefits for the city. Not only would the local economy see a nice boost, the Thames River would be appreciated for its nature, placing more focus on preserving it and less on developing it. Perhaps just the thing our city needs.