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Corliss: One bird can make a difference – The dollar power of a single bird

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Corliss: One bird can make a difference – The dollar power of a single bird
Fargo North Dakota 101 5th Street North 58102

Last winter was an exceptional one around here for northern species. Finches and owls normally encountered far to our north were found locally in impressive numbers. One particularly rare species—boreal owl (Aegolius funereus)—made an unprecedented showing in North Dakota with about seven reports sprinkled up and down the Red River Valley and farther west (read about the day spent looking for a boreal owl in the January 30 edition of the Pioneer). One was even found in Fargo.


On March 18, a North Fargo homeowner with several bird feeders happened to notice a particularly small docile owl perched in her front yard. After her son snapped a photograph and emailed it to the local Audubon office for identification, word quickly spread among local bird aficionados that, as improbable as it seemed, a boreal owl was roosting for the day mere feet from someone’s front step. Graciously, the homeowner even welcomed visitors to come and see it. I was one of them. By day’s end nearly 30 people had gone to view, what was for most, a bird never personally seen.

I started thinking recently about the impact this tiny 6-ounce bird had on the area economically. Granted, this was a one-day wonder, but 30 people interrupted their schedules and spent valuable time and gas money in order to satisfy a desire to see a small bit of nature. The total probably doesn’t add up to much in this case, but it does shine a light on the potential value birds and other wildlife can bestow upon local businesses.

An example with more impact comes from 2010 when, for only the third time ever north of Mexico, an orange-billed nightingale-thrush (Catharus aurantiirostris) was found in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In the parlance of bird chasers, this was a “mega,” as in mega-rarity. As it happens I got to see this bird too (story in Aug. 28, 2010 Pioneer). In this case, some actual follow-up numbers were gathered via survey.

Just this week I got in touch with the source of the survey—Nancy Drilling, of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory—and gleaned some information about that rare bird.

“The thing that I enjoyed was that it showed up in one of the most beautiful spots in the Black Hills,” said Rapid City-based Drilling. The folks who made the trek to South Dakota were indeed treated to spectacular scenery in Spearfish Canyon’s Iron Creek drainage, where the bird was originally found and stayed for several weeks.

“One place was actually getting calls from Europe about the bird, so some of the local establishments were well aware of this bird,” said Drilling. Her survey results indicate an estimated 400 people came to see the Middle American rarity, including 16 Californians, 14 Pennsylvanians, and 7 Floridians. I tend to think the estimate is on the low side and believe many more people saw the thrush and either were not aware of or didn’t respond to the survey.

The dollars spent by survey respondents totaled almost $35,000, or about $228 per person, based on the 152 responses to the expenses questions. In the cluttered backdrop of Black Hills tourism this might not seem like much but imagine if this bird had been found in, say, Dawson, N.D., for instance.

It’s easier to measure dollars spent on more visible and accountable outdoor activities like fishing and hunting where licensing and equipment are specific to a sport. Bird-watching tends to be more under-the-radar but I can assure you there are moneys, perhaps significant, being spent in this state by folks doing just that. I’ve frequently run across cars of out-of-staters in rural North Dakota doing nothing more than looking for prairie birds. And spending money.

Next month marks the 11th Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival in Carrington. Again I will be one of the guides helping out at this widely acclaimed event. Director Ann Hoffert tells me this will be the biggest one yet with over 100 people spending five days in and around Carrington. That’s five days of eating, sleeping, and gassing vehicles, not to mention the getting to and from.

The outdoors cannot compete with oil or other large employers for state impact dollars. It does, however, come with an advantage the others don’t, in that as long as there are birds to see, fish to catch, and animals to hunt, there will always be people chasing after them.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.