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Regions with Fewer Sports Facilities Look to Birding for Economic Development

1 Jun, 2016

By: Tracey Schelmetic

When it comes to sports or leisure activities, birding may not fire up as many people as the Super Bowl, but some regions, particularly those with abundant natural resources but few sports facilities, are starting to see it as a tool for building economic success. The average birding enthusiast tends to be older, well-educated and have more disposable income.  Unlike some fans, they also tend to leave the places they visit better off than when they found them.

Greenlee County in Arizona is seeking to make birding a key component of the region’s economic development.

“[Birding is] a tourism sector that requires little in the way of infrastructure — create some trails and lookouts, and birders are happy,” according to Arizona’s local Copper Era news source. “It’s also a green industry, as birders have a respect for the environment. They understand ‘pack it in/pack it out’ and make sure to leave the area in the same condition in which they found it.”

While many birders remain close to home, quite a few are willing to travel to get a glimpse of a nesting bald eagle, for example, or the migration flights of the whooping crane. This travel, of course, often involves hotels, motels, campgrounds or RV parks, restaurants and shops…not to mention birding supplies.

A National Wildlife Foundation report found that the economic impact of birding, including trip expenses and equipment, is considerable. American birders spent $40.9 million nationally in 2011. More than 10 percent of it -- $4.6 million of that — was spent just on food, and another $3 million was for lodging. Equipment represented the largest slice of the expenditures: birders spent $26 million for clothing, camping and hiking equipment, binoculars, photography equipment and other paraphernalia. It’s Greenlee County’s hope that bird enthusiasts will spend more of this money in its borders.

Before this can happen, however, the editorial page of the Copper Era says the county needs to lure a good sporting goods supplier to the area.

“County officials know those retailers won’t be making their way here until Greenlee County is well established as a go-to location for quality bird-watching,” according to the newspaper. “And the efforts of volunteers throughout the county are well on their way to making that become a reality.”

Counties such as Greenlee that know they’ll never attract a Super Bowl, or have the kind of infrastructure for large amateur sporting events, might be wise to turn to birding, particularly if they’re in an interesting part of the country that is home to the more “desirable” birds.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2011, there were 47 million birdwatchers (birders), 16 years of age and older, in the United States. The higher the income and education level, the more likely a person is to be a birder. Birders with incomes above the median participated at a higher rate than the average birder while birders with incomes below the median participated at a lower rate.

Birding even offers opportunities for competitions. The annual World Series of Birding event was held in Cape May, New Jersey last weekend. It’s the country's largest and most prestigious birding competition and provides participants and sponsors with a fun and interactive way to raise money for critically needed conservation priorities.

Birding can also be an activities destinations can market alongside fishing, as well as in areas where mountain biking, hiking and other outdoor activities are popular.

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