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TWIN PEAKS

New data show that birding mania isn’t just a lockdown fad

A nightingale sings a song on a tree branch
Reuters/Vasily Fedosenko
Nightingale, sighted.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work reporter

Published

A sudden rise in bird watching around the world was one of the rare heartening consequences of pandemic lockdowns last year.

The same restrictions that shut down so many less enchanting pastimes created space for this one, nudging the delightful creatures that had always been present—chipping and singing, sand bathing, and nesting—into the foreground.

Businesses that sell birdfeed and backyard bird feeders reported sales increases of 45% and 50%. Novice birders contributed to a new record for spotting bird species on Global Big Day, an annual bird-watching event run by the eBird program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The National Audubon Society, a non-profit dedicated to conservation, was booking celebrities like comedian Melissa Villaseñor for webinars. And while many young children sharpened their nature drawing skills, at least one five-year-old taught himself to read so he could take in more details about blue jays, cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, and company.

Now that economies are opening up, it’d be reasonable to expect that birds would lose their newfound fans. However, data from Wikipedia and Audubon suggests that although interest in birds has dropped off this year compared to the northern hemisphere’s summer of 2020, it still remains much higher than in years gone by. Our new passion for birds may have staying power.

What bird is this?

Birders in the 21st century turn to the web for information about the creatures they’re spotting. Like researchers on most topics, many end up on Wikipedia, making the seasonal interest in many birds clear through the site’s visitor data. Visits to many bird pages are still well above their pre-pandemic levels

For example, Wikipedia users visited the site’s page about blue jays nearly 44,000 times in May 2019. That peak doubled to 85,000 about a year later in 2020, and fell to 73,000 at its peak this year.

The red-winged blackbird page visits trajectory is remarkably similar.

The general pattern is repeated in traffic to the site’s chickadee and starling pages, though with smaller numbers. For instance, click-throughs to the chickadee page topped out at under 10,000 in 2019, but hit 23,000 in both 2020 and 2021.

Traffic to the bald eagle and owl Wikipedia pages spiked in 2020. Both birds seem to command a much higher baseline level of interest and have returned to 2019 levels this year.

How increased bird-watching affected Audubon

Quartz also checked in with Audubon to see if it saw a similar surge in demand for bird information. Indeed, it did. For example, a respectable 750,000 people signed on to its Audubon Bird App in the northern hemisphere’s spring of 2019, but that figure climbed to 1.2 million in 2020 and is soaring past that height in 2021.

Not only were people opening their apps, they were also logging more bird sightings in 2020 and continue to do so in 2021.

Audubon says it also saw stronger sales in its backyard bird feeder and wild bird food licensing programs in 2020 compared to previous years, and web traffic increased by 33% from 2019 to 2020. Some of those visitors were drawn to new educational materials, Audubon for Kids and Audubon para Niños, which were both created when lockdowns began.

Bird watching near you

Several factors might explain the widespread “discovery” of birds in 2020. Rebeccah Sanders, chief field and strategy officer of the National Audubon Society, partially credits the timing of when people were ordered indoors. It was spring in the northern hemisphere “when all these new birds are sort of floating through people’s backyards and environments,” she says. City dwellers may have believed that house sparrows and pigeons were their only feathered neighbors, but they perhaps would have seen a beautiful bull-finch, robins, and cardinals,” she adds.

Besides that, she says, “people were also looking out their window a little differently.”

Last spring, Margaret Atwood, the novelist and avid birder, and nature writer Jenny Odell shared their thoughts on the origins of birding fever with 1a, a WAMU public radio show. Not only could we see and hear birds more easily when everything else slowed down, they suggested, but people found companionship in them. “We’re not alone on the planet,” Atwood concluded. To Odell, their mysteriousness was “a reminder that there’s something you don’t quite know or can’t grasp and explain and that’s an important feeling to have right now.”

Birding was also an ideal antidote to that feeling that comes from “over-engaging with social media,” said Odell. “You feel flattened, you don’t have a body, and your attention span is really short.” Birding, by contrast, is a more immersive experience. It also offers a “lifelong experience of learning,” she said.

Then came late May, when birding played a role in a very public incident in Central Park. On May 25, the same day that George Floyd would be murdered by police in Minneapolis, a white woman named Amy Cooper threatened to call the police on Christian Cooper, a fellow New Yorker, and say that an “African-American man,” as she referred to him three times, was threatening her life. In fact, he had politely asked her to put her dog on a leash, per park rules. Christian Cooper (the two are unrelated) was birding in the park that morning,

The event brought birding into people’s consciousness generally, Sanders proposes, while raising necessary and overdue conversations about race and the refuge of outdoor spaces. “Who are the spaces for? Who has access and rights to them? How do people access them?” she says.

“Everybody birds, but it hasn’t always been viewed as an inclusive space or hobby,” she tells Quartz. Fortunately, those conversations about birding while Black and ornithology’s history continue this year too.

The future of Bird watching

Birding is catching up with the times in other ways. For Audubon, Covid-restrictions forced the organization to move online many of its most in-demand sessions about how to begin bird watching. Some birding guides live-streamed their solo journeys to screens around the globe. Like many arts groups once limited to physical venues, Audubon discovered that it could reach exponentially more people, as in thousands of people, by hosting their educational seminars digitally, compared to the dozens of people who might show up for an in-person talk, says Sanders.

Perhaps relatedly, Audubon saw the highest growth in the number of people under age 40 who joined as members. The stereotype of the gray-haired birder who keeps a list of every bird they’ve spotted in their life may soon be outdated.

It’s impossible to say whether birding will maintain momentum as the rest of the economy opens up, people head back to offices, and we start to think less about the virus. But a lasting change in bird awareness and eagerness to easily identify birds in our surroundings would likely benefit not only our souls, but the planet as a whole. Bird watchers tend to become more attuned to the wider world. They have a more direct connection with their local parklands, marshes, and shorelines, and all the places where clever, tiny, and regal winged creatures source their food and build their varied homes as small marvels of engineering. (We do know that the Global Big Day event broke even more records this year. )

“With any luck, this human shift may stick,” science writer Jennifer Ackerman wrote last May. “Birds may have something important to tell us about what it takes to navigate this world,” she also proposed, “especially under difficult circumstances.”

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