Easy Money, but Whose?
Money or lack thereof has a lot to do with easy birding. It may be simple. Is there time to walk in the woods behind the house or should I be splitting wood, thereby reducing some of the fuel costs. Can I afford a pair of binoculars or other birding equipment? Just birding locally means a few gallons of gasoline, wear and tear on the vehicle, and time away from cost cutting chores such as splitting wood. There is a price tag on everything.
Birders often do not talk about money. Published listings of tours by bird guides often do not include the cost. Is it that if you have to ask, you cannot afford it? Going to individual web sites of tour companies will provide the fees. Catalogues listing optics seem to list more top end equipment and housing for birder meetings are often at expensive resorts. If every birder that had the desire had the best binoculars, went on bird tours whenever they wanted and attended all the bird meetings they could, they would be either wealthy or very much in debt.
Fortunately, the internet keeps the less endowed masses informed and anyone looking down their nose at carriers of slim wallets should be looking down their nose at birds. Once, in Panama, a person noticing my old scarred prism binoculars, looked askance and admitted once owning such a kind of glass. Hundreds of species and thousands of individuals had been identified through those binocs, but, being a good birder, I smiled and said nothing. If I had purchased a better pair of binocs, I likely would not have had money to bird in Panama, partly because of the five-star resort where I had to sleep. A longtime friend has seen more ABA species that my budget of money and time would ever allow. He complained that he could not compete with the few well-heeled people who have seen more ABA species.
Whatever kind of birder you want to become may not be the kind of birder you become. Not everyone is going to see all the ABA species, have a big year worth reporting, or have the best of optics. As much as we would like an equal playing field, that idea will not happen. Easy birders need to realize that and make the best possible birding life a reality. Where would the fun be if there were no limits, that going anywhere on the planet at any time would yield every bird desired. That would too easy. Budgeting adventurous birders can meet the challenge. Camping and inexpensive motels do make for a good night. Just don’t let the bedbugs bite.
There are many people out there willing and some more able than others to budget and spend their money on birds and birding. According to a website for Wild Birds Unlimited checked in 2006, 54 million people were participating in bird feeding and watching wildlife in North American backyards. Since most backyards are not exactly full of bison and moose, most of the wildlife is probably birds. The other wildlife would probably be cats feeding on the birds the people fed, but that is another story. Those 54 million people spent $3.1 billion dollars on birdseed and, the report states, wildlife food. Presumably, wildlife food is food squirrels, rabbits and fish eat. That’s fine. Fatten up those critters for raptors and other birds. An urban friend who feeds “wild” coy frequently had visits by a not so shy coy loving Great Egret.
Besides the bird meals, the quest for easy birding causes birders to fork over hundreds of millions dollars for bird feeders, bird baths and nesting boxes. Of course, all these expenditures make it is easier to watch birds from the backyard. Some birds are observable through the window, and will tolerate views so close that older humans have to dawn their trusty reading glasses to overcome a blurry view. These birds are either fearless or ignorant. Even hosting the birds sometimes does not bring them close enough for easy naked eye viewing. Whether watching the backyard munchers from home or observing birds foraging a la naturelle at some great birding site, a closer look may be required. Optics sometimes help from the more shy birds, those species that want more than a window between them and your big ogling head. Birders requiring closer views are those spending a half-billion dollars on binoculars and spotting scopes.
The amount of birdseed, feeders, house and optics sometimes tilt the scale of easy birding to not so easy birding. Not all birders will want to sink their birder budget in avian room and board or in high-end optics. However, spent money equates to easy money for merchants selling birdseed, feeders, houses and optics. Who will be the Bill Gates thriving from the business of servicing birders? Those who sell the bird food, feeders and houses have steady income from those feeding all those backyard birds. The more birds, the more seeds are needed. Many stores sell so much that they have to stack the 50 lb. bags outside the store. Persistent pigeons and urban wildlife, such as rats and mice, take advantage of the outdoor warehouses. People do to, buying bag after heavy bag. It is definitely easy money for the merchants who trickle-down their inventory expenditures to the shippers, packagers and producers of all that bird food. It is the bird food economy. Birders should figure out how to get the most bird for their buck. One way is to buy products for birds from companies that also donate to conservation causes. The theory is the more birds, the more products, and the more birds. Everyone could win.
Going to see birds may be expensive, especially if your creature comforts prohibit camping. Today, gasoline prices creep up somewhat proportional to the rate of avian extinction. Because the cost of gasoline per gallon last year was, on the average, 50 cents or cheaper than today, does not mean it will be that much more next year. It might and likely will be higher. Who knows? As all students of economics 101 realize, higher gasoline prices means higher lodging and food prices, including bird feeder food. What is a birder to do?
A report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the very same outfit that fed me for years, stated in 1996, the year I left my day job, that birders spent $29 billion dollars on trips to see birds and the equipment we used to see them. Gasoline was high then, but it was cheap compared to 10 years down the road. According to my old employer, our individual expenditures included 57% for equipment and 32% for travel. Transportation accounts for 31% of the travel budget. I suppose they mean gas, not other things like oil changes, tires and others. They reported food to digest 37% and lodging to cost 20% of travel expenses. The report went on to state that all the money spent by wildlife watchers, not just by birders, helped create 1,010, 590 jobs, resulting in $24.2 billion in employment income, $1.04 billion in state sales tax, $323.5 billion in state income tax and $3.8 billion in federal income tax. There probably are some more up to date figures, flow charts and Wall Street indexes, but, hey, this is not about economics, it’s about birding, especially easy birding.
We know we spend plenty of money trying to see all those birds as easily as possible. We know we have tourist dollar clout, that we are now part of the economic community and create a state and Federal revenue base flush enough to fund something useful.
In the meantime, not only is the goal some easy birding, but if we are prudent, we might save a buck or two to not only make our birding budget easily manageable, but also to help us see even more easy birds.
Here are a few ways to keep those dollars from flying away:
- Stay home.
- Watch the yard. Pay for the bird food by buying bulk. Go to one of the mart stores. They are usually cheaper than the Grange-Coop and most certainly less pricey than the stores specifically catering to birders. Of course, if you are into fru-fruness, then go for the organic birdseed, binocular straps that caused no animal suffering and field guides printed on recycled, huh, field guides. Yard birding does not really necessitate high or even low powered optics. Window cleaner helps.
- Bird locally. Travel beyond your bird feeder but stay in your own neighborhood. There is probably some easy birding in your immediate locale, maybe at a neighbor’s bird feeder. And who knows what might pop in. I saw my first Ruff on the shores of a reservoir about a fifteen-minute drive from home. Local birding is a good way to get to know your immediate compatriots. All you have to worry about is maybe a sack lunch, a bottle or two of water and a smidgen of gasoline.
- Don’t stay home.
- Travel the off-season when possible. That will not save on gasoline, but it will likely cut some of the lodging costs. If your easy birding has put your life list up there and you hunger for new birds, sometimes the time to travel to specified locations may be dependent on season of the year. Winter rates are often cheaper than summer ones but not always. Southeastern Arizona offers some great easy birds, hummingbirds counting as some of the easiest species. Spring and summer may be the birdiest months there but tourist pay for their winter visits to Arizona. On the other hand, coastal birding during winter or the so-called off-season, is almost always less costly than the summer rates, sometimes by a considerable amount. Just think, east coast birding in the winter. It might get cold, depending on your attitude and latitude, but no hurricanes to blow you away. As with the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the winter Pacific coast has a large palette of birds to observe. Further, your chances of running into vagrants are more likely in winter and migration months.
Generally, franchised motels are the way to go because they have to answer to a higher authority. Therefore, the customer services are usually good and the rooms clean. Super 8 Motels offer reasonable prices with clean rooms, usually microwaves and small refrigerators. Motel 6 are even less expensive and usually do not have microwaves and fridges. There are many non-franchised motels that are great in service and price but you do not know what you are getting until you get there. Word of mouth is always helpful. Also, shop on the internet. Even if you don’t make a reservation on the net or over the phone, you will be armed with information about rates, maybe look at available photos of rooms and print out a map, just in case. Don’t hesitate to ask for discounts. Being old sometimes helps, so have your AARP card handy. Other memberships, such as AAA helps. Also, don’t be hesitant to bargain. Not long ago, after chasing down a rare Arctic Loon in northern Oregon, I checked in a local motel. After I mentioning that there seemed to be very few occupants, the manager reduced the winter rate even further and gave me a room with a view at the same reduced fee. It never hurts to ask. A “no” will not be fatal.
- If you do camp, it is not free most places. Camping is not the easiest activity, but it may put you closer to more birds for a greater amount of time. Keep in mind making and breaking camp, building a fire and all those camping activities take more time than swiping a credit card and pulling back the sheets at a motel. There you don’t even have to roll up your bed. Other than pitching a tent, try car camping. It especially works for smaller other than larger birders. Most six footers can sleep comfortably. Remember also that camping under the stars or inside a vehicle may offer some easy munching for mosquitoes. Besides the financial rewards of camping, some campgrounds offer some easy owling and a morning chorus.
- Bring along a satiating supply of snacks including fruit and cheese. Fruity fiber and cutting the cheese will transport hunger between meals. Hydrate, so always have more water than you think you will need. Drink before you get thirsty. For getting rid of water, see “How to Avoid being Arrested.” Taking care of yourself means keeping some of that hard-earned money out of the hands of an emergency room thus preventing some easy birding. Speaking of water, a power drink, the kind athletes drink, is good to have along, and helps wash down another essential, peanut butter. Snacking or grazing throughout the day is healthy, physically and financially good. There are plenty of franchised eateries, just do not be too carnivorous and too much in a hurry for fast food.
- Miles per gallon may be important on long trips. Unfortunately, most of us are not going to go out and buy the best vehicle with the best miles per gallon, we are going to drive what we have now. Most of us cannot afford to buy something that will save us hundreds of dollars a year when it will cost us thousands a year to pay for it. That is a sad realization, but it is a real one. Whatever you drive, as the Car Talk guys, Click and Clack, say, “Don’t drive like my brother.” That’s to say, don’t drive 80 + mph to get to your destination. In other words, don’t drive like me. Keep the speed to a sensible level. Besides, identifying roadside birds at 65 or less is far easier than ticketing speeds.
Once you are where you won’t to be, enjoy. Try not to think about what you have saved or the costs of birding, at least at the moment. You are there, so take it all in. After the fat bird sings, then take stock of what happened to your easy money. Was it worth it? If you over spent, figure out how to increase your birds/dollar. Make adjustments. The next trip, whether it is down the street or miles and miles away, will be easier.