For the Birds Radio Program: Birding as a Sport

Original Air Date: March 4, 1987

How many birders are there? (3:55) Date verified.

Audio missing


![Boreal Owl] ( “Boreal Owl”)

(Recording of a Boreal Owl)

How many bird watchers are there in the U.S.? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a survey a few years ago, in which one out of every four people questioned said that he watched birds at least a bit during the past two years. But somehow 60 million birders seems an improbably high number. On the same survey, only half of the self- described bird-watchers could identify at least ten species. If a true bird-watcher must know at least forty species, then there are about seven million bird-watchers in the U.S. Of these seven million, the average age is 42, and more than 70% of them are male.

Four thousand of the hard-core birders are members of the American Birding Association, which is the bastion of true competitive birders– the kind that travel all over the country to collect rarities for their lists. Most of these birders keep state, county, and year lists as well as their life list–the list of all the birds they’ve ever seen. There are all kinds of strict rules about which birds can be listed–for example, you can’t count a whip-poor-will or an owl on your lifelist if you’ve only heard it–any bird must be seen to be counted. Once it’s on your lifelist, though, you can count a bird for a county or year list just by hearing it. The bird can’t be released from captivity–the Mute Swans in Ashland couldn’t be counted until the late 1970’s, even though they were there since the 50’s, because they had been introduced–there had to be proof of a third generation before they could be considered truly wild. Birds trapped by banders and then released can’t be counted until the next day. And only North American birds count–Mexico and Baja California are out of limits. Birders on the Rio Grande can count only the birds seen on the U.S. side of the river.

Even with these strict rules, it’s possible to see over 700 species in North America, although it requires a lot of travel. One Arkansas anesthetist, Benton Basham, managed to get 711 species in 1983 alone– the all-time North American record for a year list. Naturally, Benton csme to the Northland to get some of his birds–and with Kim Eckert guiding on the Gunflint Trail, we had a memorable evening of birding. We whistled one Saw-whet Owl right to us–they answer to anything that resembles their call:

(Recording of a Saw-whet Owl)

The Boreal Owl’s call was easy to recognize:

(Recording of a Boreal Owl)

But we never actually saw the Boreal. Kim already had it for his year list, and Benton had seen one years before, so he was allowed to count it, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t until February first of this year that I actually saw a Boreal Owl in the wild and could add it to my lifelist.

The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union has a 300 club for people who have listed over 300 different species in Minnesota–43 birders are currently enrolled. For the less well-traveled, there is also a 200- County club for people who have seen at least 200 species in a single county. And many people keep yard lists, too–in the Northland it’s possible to see over a hundred species from your own backyard.

(Recording of a Boreal Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”