Birding has recently overtaken golf as the fastest growing recreational activity in the United States. According to a survey conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006, 21% of the population age 16 and older were considered birders. Canadian stats are hard to find, but it is believed that these numbers are proportionately similar north of the border. The demographic with the highest number of birders are those age 55 and older, college educated, with an annual income of $75,000 or greater. So if nearly one quarter of the population birds and earns a comfortable income, why are governments not looking to cash in on this economic opportunity?
It is no secret that many wildlife species have seen a decline in their numbers over recent years. In fact, more species are added to the Species at Risk list each year than are removed. Many factors are to blame, but the one that stands out is habitat loss. As cities grow, more and more land is converted from fields and forests to asphalt and buildings. Protecting species is not good enough, we have to be more diligent about protecting habitat.
All levels of government constantly use development to create jobs and stimulate the economy. Land is sold to developers, then cleared, serviced, and buildings go up in the hopes of attracting a tenant. Wildlife is forced to move on and literally search for greener pastures. Sure, the economy gets a quick boost as construction jobs are created, and materials are sold and delivered. However, what happens years down the road when that business closes or moves somewhere else seeking lower operating costs? We are left with a struggling economy and an outdated building that is not suited for today’s industry. How many times do we drive by an empty factory, strip mall or car dealership only to see land being cleared for a new one just down the road? Wildlife is once again forced out as habitat is destroyed. More emphasis needs to be put on protecting and creating habitat by modifying existing buildings to accommodate new business, and convert previously developed unused land back into natural areas.
If nearly one quarter of the population birds and birding is the fastest growing recreational activity, than why is more not being done to promote and benefit, both environmentally and economically, from this activity? When you compare birding to other recreational activities, one clear difference stands out. There are very few designated areas where birding is the only permitted activity. Golf has golf courses, hockey has arenas, swimming and basketball have pools and gymnasiums located in recreation centers. There are plenty of places to bird, such as city parks and ESAs, but almost none where birding is the only permitted activity. If you are wondering what would be the draw to a designated birding area, imagine trying to golf while someone is flying a kite in the middle of the 18th fairway, or trying to swim laps in a pool while someone casts a lure into your lane. Birding can be done almost anywhere, but is easily disrupted by other activities.
Municipalities profit from city owned recreational facilities such as golf courses and arenas by charging to use these facilities. If birding is the fastest growing recreational activity and nearly one quarter of the population does it, than why not create more designated birding areas where a fee is paid to use them? Such areas would not only benefit the environment, but would have long term economic benefits as well.
Creating more federally, provincially or municipally owned, designated birding areas would be quite simple. There is plenty of land available to be saved from developers and designated for such areas. These areas would operate similar to a golf course. You would have a large expanse of land with a mixed habitat. Forests, meadows and wetlands would attract a wide range of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and of course birds. Now instead of charging a membership or green fee from April through November, you charge a membership or entrance fee twelve months of the year. Staff would be employed to collect fees, assist visitors and maintain the grounds just like a golf course. These designated birding areas would have much lower operating costs and carbon footprint than a golf course as no lawn mowers would be running, water consumed, or harmful fertilizers used. The areas would support biodiversity, ecotourism, and be an excellent destination for environmental education.
Birding is defined as observing birds in their natural habitat as a hobby, but in fact most birders enjoy observing all flora and fauna. Birding is an activity that many take quite seriously. Most birders keep a list of birds observed each calendar year, as well as a list of birds observed in their lifetime. Since not all birds can be found close to home, many birders travel hundreds, even thousands of kilometers in search of new species. Birders have a great impact on the travel and tourism industry.
Situated between the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, two major migration routes, London Ontario’s geographic location is perfect for birding. Thousands of birds pass through the city each year during spring and fall migration. The Thames River is becoming more and more popular each year with birders, as word spreads of the abundance and variety of waterfowl that overwinters here. London is home to several resident species, many of which are listed as Species at Risk. At risk insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and plants can also be found across the Forest City, and for many, their numbers continue to decline as habitat is lost.
Having more protected areas for these species would give them a place to reproduce and thrive, having a tremendous environmental impact. These areas could also be used to reintroduce species into the wild or as a release site for rehabilitated wildlife. Having a designated birding area where birders could come and observe nature in its natural element would be a huge boost to our local tourism. Birders would flock to the area wishing to observe these delicate species. Local hotels, restaurants and retail would all benefit from the influx of new visitors to our city.
If you are not convinced birding has an positive impact on the economy, ask the small business and hotel owners in the towns surrounding Point Pelee their thoughts on the Festival of Birds. This birding festival is timed perfectly with spring migration, taking place annually in May. It draws upwards of 50,000 birders from around the world in a three week period, boosting the local economy.
Designated birding areas would sustain themselves for many years. The positive environmental and economic impacts would be felt long term, unlike many developments. The number of empty buildings covering our landscape would be reduced, making cities more aesthetically pleasing and greener. Cities all across the country are constantly looking at ways to attract and keep people in their city. If one quarter of the population enjoys birding and observing nature, than why not give the people what they want. Maybe it’s time to shift the emphasis off development and onto keeping nature in the city.