Birders represent a large segment of non-consumptive wildlife viewers in the U.S. and elsewhere. According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 46 million Americans participate in birdwatching either around or away from the home. Governmental agencies and various birding and bird conservation groups are collaborating through NABCI and other avenues to tap into this large, potential pool of people who might contribute more to bird and habitat conservation programs.

The thing is, not all birders are alike. Some are motivated to help with bird conservation and others not so much. Their overall views about conservation can differ widely. This was driven home to me in 2013 after completing a study for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on how birders come to think of themselves as birders. The study focused on determining how many birder identities exist, and how those identities come about.

Identity theory posits that it’s not what you do that makes you a birder, but rather who you are in terms of traits and attributes. These traits and attributes develop over time as one participates in a set of “apprenticeship activities”, think trips and other events where one learns what it means to be a birder. Both the traits and the apprenticeship activities that makes somebody a birder are in turn influenced by a combination of “identity facilitators” to which the birder is exposed. These facilitators include the birding institutions the birder associates with as well as individuals and groups who are important in the life of the individual.

For our study, we drew samples from among nine audiences of people who interacted with the Lab of Ornithology, from members, to citizen science participants, to bird cam viewers, to those who sought bird-related information from the on-line source All About Birds. We asked respondents which of 11 listed types of individuals, groups, and institutions helped them understand what it means to be a birder. Based on responses to these questions, we found 14 distinct identity types.

The large diversity of birder identities was a challenge in understanding how to use the results. Fortunately, we were able to condense the 14 identity types into 4 overarching groups, each containing closely-related sister identities. These 4 groups are as follows.

Self-reliant Birders (55% of respondents in 4 sister identities)

Love to leisurely watch birds and enjoy them even if they don’t know many of the kinds they are watching. The most important parts of birding for them are feeling connected to nature, being attuned to birds and being respectful of birds. Less than half of these birders are highly motivated to participate in doing hands-on conservation work such as providing bird habitat around their homes, or in advocating for bird-friendly policies and regulations.

Have Equipment, Will Travel Birders (21% of respondents in 3 sister identities)

Want to explore for birds near and far. Like to try to identify every bird they see, wherever they are. Love the sense of discovery they get when they find an unusual bird, and feel a sense of accomplishment when they use their identification skills. About a third of these birders are highly motivated to use their participation in citizen science as a form of conservation.

Home-as-Habitat Birders (12% of respondents in 2 sister identities)

Want to build habitat for both birds and family members in their backyard. Enjoy a wide variety of birding activities, and like to go on field trips to look for birds. Have a real passion for helping others learn about birds and bird habitat. Nearly half of these birders are highly motivated to provide native plants and other habitat improvements around their homes.

Inquisitive Information-sharing Birders (12% of respondents in 4 sister identities)

Want to learn as much as they can about birds, and want to help other learn about birds, too! Contribute to citizen science projects, but for the fun and personal challenge rather than to contribute to conservation science. Indeed, none are highly motivated to participate in any kind of conservation, but are among the most likely to record bird sounds and engage in natural history investigations of birds they encounter.

One of the most important take home messages from our study is that the population of birders is pretty diverse in terms of what it means to be a birder and how those characteristic traits get developed. Meaning, we need a field guide to birders!

Bird conservation groups can benefit from knowing that only 4 of the 14 identity types were highly motivated to go birding for conservation reasons. The definition and actions that make up the idea of “conservation” also differed within the 4 types that were motivated, from participating in conservation science, to policy advocacy, to hands-on habitat work. However, birders whose birding activities are not motivated by the idea of contributing to conservation do contribute by monitoring birds and sharing their information with others.

Each identity type is produced through a particular kind of social system, a combination of social influence and apprenticeship activities. In some sense, these different social systems are like different kinds of habitat supporting different kinds of birds. Understanding these systems and the birder identities they produce will be vital to enlisting more birders in conservation.