Research Study on Birders - Findings

01 Aug 2013 11:26 #1098 by Mike Prince
Some time ago we asked for help on behalf of Jamal Essayli regarding his research study on birders , particularly "extreme" birding. Jamal recently send a very thorough summary of his findings, which I include below. It's a long but fascinating read! If you have any comments, post them here and I'll ensure that Jamal gets to see them.

I want to express my sincere gratitude for your participation in the online study of birders conducted last year. In order to examine the questions of interest, the project was dependent on responses from birders like you. It was hoped that approximately 100 birders would participate in the study – a number that might seem overly optimistic in view of the length of the questionnaires and the fact that birders were being asked to volunteer without any incentive other than the advancement of knowledge about birding. The fact that more than 400 birders chose to participate in a just a few weeks was astonishing. The large sample size obtained through birders’ generous participation in this research made it possible to examine questions in more detail than anticipated.

This message is being sent to you both to share the general findings of the study and to thank you for taking the time to post the survey on BUBO Listing. As noted when you were first contacted to participate, the present study was interested in exploring characteristics of the under-studied population of birders. Only a handful of studies have been conducted exploring features of birders, which is somewhat surprising given how important birding is to a substantial segment of the population. Even less work has been done with serious birders, and personal accounts suggest that this would be an especially interesting group for more research.

Of particular interest was comparing serious or “extreme” birders to others who participate in the pursuit. “Extreme birding” is one of the patterns of valued, high-intensity, effortful behavior that has been discussed by my advisor, Dr. Kelly Vitousek, along with other pursuits such as high-altitude mountaineering, ultratunning, and caving. The concept of “extreme birding” was derived primarily from accounts written by serious birders, and is intended to refer to individuals who strive to attain extensive national, state, country, or life lists, and may also participate in time-sensitive competitions such as Big Years or Days. Although most members of the general public are not aware of the skill, effort, and potential risks involved in intensive birding, birders themselves recognize that the activity is demanding as well as rewarding.

The first goal of the research was to establish criteria meaningful to birders that could be used to categorize participants according to the intensity of their involvement. Initially, seven birders were asked to provide input about how they would categorize someone as a serious birder. Reflecting the diversity of ways in which individuals practice this pursuit, however, their answers to open-ended questions varied substantially. For example, while one participant emphasized that “life list numbers and long-distance travel are [not] the keys to serious birding,” other participants recommended using lists as an indicator of serious birding.

In view of the lack of consensus from the birders who provided input during the pilot phase, a statistical procedure known as an Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) was conducted to address this question. 16 potential items used to classify someone as a serious birder were generated, including “How many birds do you currently have on your life list?”, “In the past 12 months, approximately how many days have you spent somehow engaged in the activity of birding?”, and “Are you willing to travel five hours on short notice to see a rare bird?” These 16 items were found to cluster into two factors: an “Experience” factor that measured how experienced a birder is, and an “Active” factor that reflected the intensity of an individual’s birding activity. After additional statistics were applied, it appeared that the “Active” factor better represented the concept of an extreme birder. In other words, the most extreme birders were the ones who reported that they were more likely than other birders to be actively trying to increase the number of birds on their lists, to spend significant periods of time in the past year involved in birding trips and activities, to organize many aspects of their lives around birding, to be willing to travel on short notice to see a rare bird, and to spend a substantial amount on birding equipment. While the data in the present study indicate that birding involvement is most accurately represented as continuous rather than categorical, the data were analyzed both ways.

The next two research questions explored whether extreme birders were more likely than less active birders to report experiencing benefits and costs as a result of birding. As hypothesized, extreme birders were more likely than less intense birders to report a host of benefits from birding, including exposure to new locations, a sense of adventure, meeting new people, becoming closer to friends, obtaining a sense of accomplishment, breaking records, and increasing self-esteem. As noted in the table below, extreme birders were also more likely to report experiencing higher costs as a result of birding, such as harsh weather, binocular pain, risk of death, financial strain, and arguments with a romantic partner. For example, 52% of extreme birders reported experiencing risk of death as a result of birding, compared to 15% of “mid-range” birders and 5% of “low-intensity” birders. Despite these birding-specific costs, there was no evidence that extreme birders experience more global difficulties than less extreme birders, as there were no group differences in self-reported physical or psychological impairment.
Cost of Birding                Extreme Mid-Range Low-Intensity
                                  n~52     n~275          n~67
Harsh Weather                    100%	    	95%	    	70%
Seasickness                       46%	    	32%	    	17%
Sprained Limb                     44%	    	19%	    	11%
Broken Limb                        2%	     	2%	     	0%
Serious Injury                     6%	     	3%	     	0%
Risk of Death                     52%	    	15%	 	    5%
Parasites                         31%	    	13%	    	12%
Insect Bites                     100%	    	98%	    	91%
Snake Bites                        6%	     	2%	     	0%
Attack by Birds                   48%  	  	38%	    	21%
Attack by Other Animal            31%	    	14%	     	7%
Binocular Pain                    65%	    	46%	    	24%
Warbler Neck                      90% 	   	84%	    	70%
Death of a Friend                  6%	     	1%	     	0%
Financial Strain                  44%	  	  29%	     	9%
Arguments with Partner            57%	    	37%	    	18%
Arguments with Children           10%	     	6%	     	3%
Arguments with Relatives          33%	    	16%	     	6%
Arguments with Friends            21%	    	13%	     	6%
Difficulties Finding Partner      32%	    	11%	     	5%
Insufficient Time with Partner    37%	    	17%	     	8%
Insufficient Time with Children   15%	     	6%	     	0%
Insufficient Time with Relatives  31%	    	15%	     	2%
Insufficient Time with Friends    31%	    	16%	     	2%
Ending of a Serious Relationship  18%	     	3%	     	2%

The project was also designed to examine whether extreme birders were more likely than non-extreme birders to report a number of features that seem to emerge across accounts from individuals who pursue other “extreme” behaviors. The term “extreme behaviors” refers in this context to highly valued pursuits that require extraordinary persistence and commitment, and often involve high levels of skill and potential risk. The term has been applied to both physically challenging activities such as high-altitude mountaineering and endurance sports such as ultrarunning and marathon swimming, to non-athletic pursuits such as competitive chess and Scrabble®, as well as to activities such as caving and birding. Interestingly, parallels across some of these patterns have been noted not only by psychological researchers but also by birders themselves, with a number of personal accounts drawing analogies between intensive birding and activities like climbing and distance running. Some researchers have also suggested partial parallels between these non-pathological patterns and some aspects of psychiatric conditions such as anorexia nervosa and Asperger’s syndrome (a condition on the autistic spectrum); however, it should be emphasized that the intent of these comparisons is to illuminate possible similarities in the processes that may be involved, rather than to categorize patterns such as extreme running or birding as “pathological” (or, indeed, patterns such as anorexia nervosa as “normal”).

Personal accounts written by individuals involved in a wide range of extreme pursuits suggest that similar features may emerge whenever people participate in valued, effortful activities of this kind. These include: euphoria, identification with the pursuit, pride, feelings of superiority based on skill in the pursuit, competitiveness, a concern for the purity of the pursuit, the perception that the pursuit facilitates predictable judgments, stability, simplicity, and structure, and the experience of a “moment of inspiration” that initiated engagement in the pursuit. In the present study, it was hypothesized that “extreme” birders would be more likely to endorse these experiences than those who bird less intensively. As expected, this was found to be the case: extreme birders in the study were more likely to report all of these features than were more moderate birders.

Across patterns of extreme behavior (including high-intensity birding), it is common for individuals to characterize their own pursuits as “addictions,” sometimes invoking this construct as an explanation for their intensive involvement, and sometimes using the term in a more casual or colloquial sense. For example, Richard Koeppel reported that listing is, “an addiction, just like any other addiction” (Koeppel, 2006, p. xvii). Similarly, Phoebe Snetsinger stated that she was happily “addicted” to birding: “Birding is an addiction with me. I rather hope it’s incurable” (Gentile, 2009, p. 20). The use of “addiction” as an umbrella term has been highly controversial within psychology and psychiatry, and it was not the purpose of the present research to characterize extreme birding as a pathological pattern. What was of interest, however, was whether birders would endorse features broadly associated with some definitions of “addictive” behavior, including a pattern of escalation and the development of functional autonomy (e.g., the experience that the activity of listing eventually becomes more important than the pleasure derived from birding itself), as well as whether participants would themselves characterize the pursuit as an “addiction.” As hypothesized, extreme birders in the present study were more likely than less intense birders to endorse features that overlap with some definitions of “addiction.” Just as there is no intent to characterize extreme behaviors as “pathological,” these patterns should not be construed as “addictions” comparable to substance abuse, and this term will not be suggested as an apt descriptor of birding in either academic or public discussions of the results.

An additional research question explored the hypothesis that extreme birders have a greater single-minded focus and a tendency to “systemize,” which is a drive to analyze or construct systems defined by specific rules. As expected, high-intensity birders reported higher levels of systemizing and a greater single-minded focus than did less extreme birders.

In sum, the results of the present study suggest that all birders, whether extreme or more moderate, derive a significant amount of benefit from the pursuit. The majority of all birders noted that birding keeps them active and healthy, encourages them to become more involved in important conservation issues, exposes them to a beautiful diversity of bird species and exciting locations, expands their knowledge, provides new challenges, and adds significant enjoyment to their lives. As birders become more extreme, they are more likely to report experiencing these and other benefits from birding. Extreme birders were also more likely to endorse: features that emerge in individuals who pursue other extreme behaviors; characteristics that overlap with the construct of “addiction;” a tendency to systemize; and some physical, financial, and interpersonal costs. A few participants voiced concern about the negative implication of some of the questionnaire items, and indicated that their birding experiences have led to far greater benefits than costs. Despite some parallels to psychological disorders such as Asperger’s, substance abuse, and anorexia nervosa, it is important to reiterate that the intent of this line of research is to explore partially parallel processes among individuals who pursue extreme behaviors, not to “pathologize” individuals who pursue extreme behaviors. The birders who participated in this research project reported receiving a host of benefits from the pursuit without significant physical or psychological impairment. Future research might explore additional benefits that people experience as a result of birding, and investigate similar patterns in other extreme behavior populations.

Thank you again for your participation in this research. Please let me know if you have additional questions or concerns – and good luck with all of your birding endeavors!

Jamal Essayli, M.A.
University of Hawaii at Manoa

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