Birding is exactly what it used to be

Adriene Hill Mar 14, 2011

Birding is exactly what it used to be

Adriene Hill Mar 14, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 48 million Americans consider themselves “birders.” People for whom a good walk outdoors isn’t complete without a pair of binoculars and guidebook in hand. Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s one of them, for what it’s worth.

All in all, birding’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. But as you may have noticed, Henry Paulson’s no spring chicken. In fact, the folks at the Audubon Society are scratching their heads and asking themselves: Why are our members so — not young?

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Adriene Hill has the story.

Adriene Hill: It’s a crisp winter morning in Los Angeles. I’m out searching — not for the noisy Goldfinch or the Soaring Red-Tailed Hawk, but for something much rarer. Wait! Hush! There she is, a young birder.

Celeste Prince: Celeste Prince.

OK. My apologies to all your David Attenborough fans out there, but Celeste Prince is exactly the sort of birder the Audubon Society is hoping to find. She’s in her 30s and is a musician here in L.A. She looks the part, with long red hair and dressed for our hike in a stylish coat and boots. Prince seems really, truly into bird watching.

Prince: Sometimes I get made fun of a lot by my brothers for it. There are times I’m chasing a Mountain Quail through the backyard and they’re looking at each other like, “Oh my gosh, what is happening right now?”

Prince has her iPad with her, with an application that helps her ID birds and makes bird sounds. Something that can be a bit problematic, especially when she demonstrates by playing the call of a Cooper’s Hawk.

Loud hawk sound.

Hill: Now are thousands of birds freaked out that they’ve just heard a hawk.

Garry George: Yes.

Garry George has been birding for 20-plus years.

George: You’ll see that it gets very quiet because Cooper’s Hawks actually eat birds.

Prince: Sorry, probably not the right bird to choose for this particular moment.

George is with California Audubon. He says Cooper’s Hawk-style mistakes aside, new birders and their technology are welcome. Organizations need to keep appealing to new generations to stay relevant.

David Yarnold: This isn’t your grandmother’s Audubon anymore.

David Yarnold is the president of the National Audubon Society. He says they’re trying out the new image in California — using social media to attract new people.

Yarnold: A younger, more diverse audience to help us create the Audubon of the future and it’s already paying off enormously in California.

Over 300 people RSVP’d to an Audubon sponsored party at an art gallery in Venice Beach. Most the partiers aren’t members.

And, says Graham Chisholm, executive director of California Audubon, that’s not what this event, or even this rebrand, is about.

Graham Chisholm: For Audubon it’s not so much about building membership, per se. For us, it’s really about finding ways to connect people with the work we do, but also connecting people with each other.

He’s hoping people will connect over an interest in nature — and maybe even get out and do something about it. His timing seems good. If you think about it, there are already a whole lot of younger people who are trying out other older-generation pastimes. Once fuddy-duddy hobbies like knitting and canning are cool. Why not birding?

USC Marketing professor Ira Kalb says the pull to simple, especially for young adults, makes sense.

Ira Kalb: Yeah, we’ve all gone crazy by doing too many things. You know the computer is going, the e-mails are coming in…

Kalb thinks that need for calm could work in Audubon’s favor as it tries make birding and the outdoors appealing to a younger crowd. But there’s a bit of a risk.

Kalb: You don’t want to alienate your most loyal customers, and that might be the grandmas or the grandpas.

The trick is finding the right message that’ll bring everyone in. So what do the birds think of all the fuss? I tried to ask: But they were too freaked out by the Cooper’s Hawk sound to make a peep.

Maybe next time.

I’m Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

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