“Three puffins, one o’clock!” the Audubon naturalist shouts. Thirty passengers spring from their upper-deck benches and crowd the port side of the Hardy III, which rolls over the choppy waters of Muscongus Bay, off the Maine coast. Between the shrieks of laughing gulls and the splash of sea spray, camera shutters click.
Although a number of seabirds—herring gulls, double-crested cormorants, guillemots, arctic terns, common eiders, northern gannets—have been spotted on and around the enormous granite boulders of Eastern Egg Rock, the tuxedoed birds with the colorful beaks are the undeniable stars.
This is one of the Hardy’s twice-a-day, spring and summer cruises to the island, home of the world’s first restored seabird colony, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Conducted in collaboration with the National Audubon Society and Project Puffin, the tours are part of a flourishing bird watching ecotourism industry that contributes $41 billion per year to the United States economy.
It’s a staggering figure, but it could be even higher. If allocated differently, it could pose a solution to a growing problem: as bird hunting has declined from its peak in the 1980s to its lowest levels in 25 years, so has the money collected annually from the sale of hunting licenses and weapons excise taxes—$943 million of which goes towards habitat conservation programs.
Spotting sparrows or tracking hawks is technically free, except maybe investing in a pair of binoculars. But as the hobby soars in popularity, there’s an increase in calls for birders to help preserve the wildlife they love watching.
How we watch birds now
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, about 45 million Americans are birders. Many of them invest heavily in their hobby, and that amount grew during the COVID-19 pandemic with people restricted to their homes and neighborhoods. In August 2020, Audubon reported increases of 50 percent or more on the sale of birdseed and bird watching accessories in several areas of the country.
Beyond backyards and gardens, birding opportunities are plentiful in public parks and in Important Birding Areas (IBAs)—places with concentrations of globally important bird species. Of the 2,832 IBAs in the U.S., 644 are located in the Northeast. New England has the highest birding participation rate in the country; 36 percent of its population identifies as bird watchers.
Birding has been mainly associated with privilege; historically, children of color haven’t had the same opportunities to enjoy the natural world. But the number of BIPOC birders has been steadily growing. Following the 2020 racially motivated confrontation in New York City’s Central Park between a white woman and Black birder Christian Cooper, they’ve sought to engage the birding community in conversations about the importance of supporting diversity—which can also broaden support for conservation measures.
Despite increasing diversity, birding still has the reputation for being a retired person’s hobby; the 55-to-64 age group accounts for the largest number of birders. Those demographics are shifting as well. “Increasingly, wildlife photography is lowering the average age of birders and replacing hunting,” says Çağan Şekercioğlu, ornithology expert and biology professor at the University of Utah, and a former National Geographic Explorer.
Interest in birding among Millennials, in particular, has blossomed. One of them, Aisha Yousuf, a data scientist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began birding in 2020 when she lived near Detroit. “I never really explored the areas around my house that much,” she says. “I was always out traveling in some other part of the world. But once COVID started, I started doing things like hand-feeding birds at the metro parks.” (Urban parks have become birding hotspots, as migrating avian species flock to the patches of green within seas of asphalt.)
Already an avid, self-taught wildlife photographer, Yousuf turned her lens on the songbirds, wild turkeys, and great blue herons along her daily walks. Through Instagram, where she posts her work, she developed a network of birding contacts who privately share nesting locations and unusual bird sightings.
How birding might bring bucks to conservation
Bird photography has been a longtime hobby for Jonathan Elcock, a physical therapist also based in Eastern Massachusetts. He first got hooked at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield, part of the Eastern Essex County Interior Forest Important Bird Area. Since then, he has invested thousands of dollars on equipment and up to 15 hours per month on birding. Elcock has photographed dozens of fowl, from Eastern screech owls peeking out of tree hollows to American oystercatchers sunning themselves on rocks, and fluffy piping plovers, endangered shorebirds that breed on coastal beaches from Newfoundland to North Carolina.
Elcock is the rare birder who is also a hunter. “I’m paying about $60 a year for my [hunting] license and taxes, and I haven’t had to pay anything like that for photography. I think there could be a fair way to set up some sort of fee structure for that,” he says.
Because birders like Elcock and Yousuf excel at capturing their subjects, some believe bird populations are on the rise and don’t need protection. But Şekercioğlu explains, “Watchers are looking hard, using better technology and in some cases better guides to help tease out the birds that are harder to see. It’s artificially creating the impression that the population is not declining.”
Even well-informed birders often bristle at the idea of paying entrance fees to use parks that are maintained by the state or federal government. Wayne Petersen, director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Area Program for Mass Audubon, recalls a failed effort about 30 years ago to collect a tax—similar to the one hunters pay on weapons and ammunition—on binoculars, birdseed, feeders, field guides, and other accessories.
He believes one answer to the conservation-funding dilemma is the Duck Stamp. The federal program, maintained by U.S. Fish & Wildlife, was established during the Great Depression to mitigate the widespread destruction of wetlands, which are home to one-third of the country’s threatened plant and animal species. The stamp serves as a license to hunt waterfowl at, and grants free entrance even for non-hunters into, any of the country’s 560 national wildlife refuges, many of which are located along major bird-migration routes.
Every year, hunters purchase one million of the $25 stamps, with 98 percent of proceeds going toward acquiring and protecting wetlands and purchasing conservation easements. If even half of the country’s 45.1 million birders purchased Duck Stamps—which are available at sporting goods stores, national wildlife refuges, and online—an additional $1.1 billion would be raised annually.
Petersen says, “A lot of birders don’t recognize that hunters have been paying their way for a long time. The money that’s generated by sales of the Duck Stamp far exceeds the money that’s needed to maintain that program.”
Other ways to fund conservation
Şekercioğlu points to the potential of voluntary donations from birding gear and accessories manufacturers, and from companies that run birding tours. In 2005, he conducted an analysis of birding ecotours, and found that 70 percent of the revenue from each leaves the region. “If you are a company that charges $5,000 or $10,000 per person for a two-week tour, even one percent of your proceeds donated toward land purchase and the conservation of critical bird habitat is significant,” Şekercioğlu says.
A small number of ecotour companies are already on board. Hardy Boat, for example, has donated $200,000 to Project Puffin. Birding Ecotours, which runs a variety of domestic and international trips, has a similar model. It donates a minimum of 10 percent of its net profits to bird conservation and the local communities it operates in. Trips include a Northeastern route which starts with puffins and other seabirds in Maine and then winds through New Hampshire to view boreal forest and mountain species like Bicknell’s thrush and the Canada jay.
Thousands of other declining bird species stand to benefit from a more organized system of fee collection. In the Northeast alone, these include the salt marsh sparrow, Eastern whip-poor-will, great white heron, great egret, and the Northern bobwhite, a nonmigratory native quail whose numbers have dwindled by 85 percent over a 50-year period.
For Yousuf, who donates annually to animal protection charities, social media has become her preferred tool for sparking interest in habitat protection. “All this time, I had been missing this diversity in my own area,” she says. “I hope that by posting, we can get the word out and help generate more support for wildlife.”
How You Can Help the Planet
Purchase a Duck Stamp ($25 a year) at a sporting-goods store, national wildlife refuge, or online. Sales of the waterfowl hunting licenses by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service benefit conservation efforts and grant holders free entrance to any national wildlife area in the country. If you take a birding tour, look for outfits that donate to conservation efforts such as Hardy Boat or Birding Ecotours.
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded Explorer Çağan Şekercioğlu’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species.