Vermont Leads the Pack of Wildlife Watchers

Robert Winkler
for National Geographic News
July 1, 2002

Nearly one-third of Americans age 16 and older—more than 66 million—fed, photographed, and observed wildlife in 2001, and they spent $40 billion doing so, according to the latest figures of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Statistics released by the government in May and June reveal that, over the past five years, the ranks of wildlife watchers swelled by 5 percent and that spending on wildlife-watching equipment such as binoculars and birdhouses jumped by 33 percent.

Vermont had the highest participation rate of any state: 60 percent of residents age 16 and older engaged in some form of wildlife watching. Second-place Minnesota had a 54 percent participation rate, while Alaska and Wisconsin, at 53 percent, tied for third.

These are among the preliminary findings of the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, which is conducted about every five years by the Census Bureau, under the auspices of the USFWS. Anglers and hunters have been surveyed since 1955, wildlife watchers since 1980. The final report on the 2001 survey will be published in November 2002.

Connecting with Nature

Participation in wildlife-watching plunged 17 percent in 1996, so the 5 percent increase in wildlife watchers during 2001 may be the current survey's most telling statistic. Conservation organizations, many of which depend on member support, are hopeful that this modest gain signals a reversal in a downward trend that began in 1980.

"It's great news," said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, which describes itself as the nation's largest member-supported conservation group. "It means more people are connecting with the natural world, and connection leads to concern. After September 11, Americans went in droves to urban parks in search of comfort, but even before then—facing change and challenge, and perhaps overwhelmed by technology—they were finding hope in nature's beauty, rhythms, and resilience. This survey could indicate that people are coming back to an appreciation of the natural wonders all around us."

While the 2001 survey found that wildlife watching was up, it noted slippage in the number of anglers—from 35 to 34 million, a statistically insignificant change. The popularity of hunting declined by a substantial 7 percent, with the number of hunters dropping from 14 million in 1996 to 13 million in 2001. Alaska led the states in the percentage of people who fished (41 percent), Montana in the percentage who hunted (24 percent).

Among the 63 million Americans who enjoyed wildlife around their homes, bird feeding was the most popular activity, according to the survey. Americans spent more than $2.6 billion on bird food in 2001, and more than $730 million on birdhouses, feeders, and birdbaths. Among the 18 million Americans who traveled near and far to observe birds, their favorite kinds, in order of preference, were songbirds, waterfowl, and birds of prey.

Why do Americans find birds so appealing? Paul Green, executive director of the American Birding Association, whose membership of 22,000 includes many serious birders, offered an explanation:

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