Soaring interest in bird-watching laid to aging baby boomers and young professionals

ON THE WING

February 20, 1997|By Mike Klingaman

From his second-floor office, Hank Kaestner watches the traffic fly past Hunt Valley. There are Canada geese and cormorants, ospreys and owls, even a few bald eagles. The aerial show never stops, and Kaestner, an executive with McCormick & Co., keeps careful track of the birds, recording each new breed he sees at work.

Mixing spices and species does him good, he says.

"People have such stress in their jobs," says Kaestner, of Timonium. "Nature is one of the few medicines available for free."

Hospitalized recently, Jane Farrell -- an avid bird-watcher from Columbia -- convalesced while counting things that winged past her window at Howard County General Hospital. There were ring-billed gulls and red-tailed hawks and a number of American kestrels. Farrell kept tabs on the lot. "Birders can do it anywhere," the government worker says.

On their honeymoon last year, Mark and Amy Hoffman traipsed off to Belize, in Central America, for more than marital bliss. They wanted a glimpse of the toucans and trogons and parrots that nest in the rain forests there. "Birders can be passionate about their hobby," says Mark Hoffman, a state employee who lives in Sykesville.

Grab the binoculars and an Audubon book -- bird-watching is sweeping the nation. The real "Wings" is one hot show: More than 54 million Americans flock outdoors each year to ogle their feathered friends, according to a 1995 government survey. The popularity of the activity has jumped 150 percent in a decade, according to the survey, which touts bird-watching, or birding, as the fastest-growing recreational diversion in the country.

Sales of birding equipment are humming, fueled largely by highly educated, well-heeled enthusiasts. Hobbyists spent nearly $20 billion last year on feeders and field guides, birding tapes and travel, optics and outerwear. High-end retailers like Sharper Image report a 10 percent spike in binocular sales in 1995. "I'm sure it's due to bird-watching," says Richard Thalheimer, company chairman. "My marketers tell me that bird-watching is the single biggest spectator sport in America."

Not bad for a hobby once dominated by middle-aged matrons in tennis shoes. Remember Jane Hathaway, the ornithological oddball on "The Beverly Hillbillies"?

"The stigma of the nerdy bird-watcher is gone," says Bill Thompson, editor of Birdwatcher's Digest, one of about 10 national periodicals devoted to the pursuit. "Nowadays, people see birding as an antidote to cell phones and modems and faxes, even if they only watch blue jays in their own back yard."

Circulation of his magazine has risen 10 percent in three years, says Thompson, who attributes the bird-watching craze to two affluent groups: aging baby boomers who take up birding once their own brood is grown, and cocooning young professionals intent on building their own private nests.

"They get a house, buy a few feeders for 'their' birds -- and they're hooked," he says. The feeders soon multiply and the whole place takes on a bird motif, everything from wind chimes to wallpaper borders.

Thompson, a former Baltimorean who fed birds on the fire escape of his apartment in Bolton Hill, says addiction comes easily: "Birds are beautiful, they're interesting to watch, and they have lots of traits that we anthropomorphize about. Who hasn't said, 'Oh look, they've mated, and they're singing, and he's bringing her a worm?' "

It happens every year. On March 16, Atlanta plays host to the fifth annual Birdwatch America Trade Show, an exhibit for 150 companies selling bird-related wares. Interest is growing. Eight optics firms will take part in the show; last year, there were four.

"The market is there," says Ray David, who runs the affair. "Almost anything with a picture of a bird on it is hugely popular, from mugs and T-shirts to dinnerware and napkins. There are bird figurines in pewter and crystal, birding software and CDs, and bird feeders that look like the Taj Mahal."

High-tech binoculars may cost as much as $4,000, he says, though $40 will get you a yeomanlike pair.

What must birds think of their newfound celebrity? "They couldn't care less," says David. "All of this stuff is made for people. Birds have lived without it for millions of years, and could live millions more."

Not so, folks like Mark Hoffman, among the more than 1.5 million Marylanders who have the birding bug. No longer are binoculars just for gawking at Orioles and Ravens -- there are about 400 bird species native to the state, and Hoffman's goal is to spot them all. In one year. Impossible? His best is 329, a state record.

Hoffman, 38, a wildlife management director for the Department of Natural Resources, is more persistent than most. He sloughs through landfill muck to find a new gull. He hits the beach during hurricanes to see rare oceanic birds that are blown off course.

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