World Series of Birding
Get your binoculars ready, because the competition is fierce.
Baseball doesn’t have anything on birding. Bird-watching is one of the most popular backyard hobbies in North America, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it can get competitive.
Serious birders have always kept a life list to record when and where they spotted a species for the first time, and it didn’t take long for someone to realize this had the makings of a sport. In 1984, 13 teams gathered at midnight in New Jersey to begin what is now known as the World Series of Birding. The concept that first year was simple: The team to record the most species of birds within the state’s borders would be named the winner.
Now, 27 years later, the competition is still going strong at the Cape May Bird Observatory in Cape May Point, New Jersey. Teams spend 24 hours in sometimes miserable weather to be part of something bigger than a hobby. Sure, some people want to add to their own life lists. But above all, every participant loves birds and is invested in preserving their natural homes.
Let the Games Begin
Before the annual event, which will be held this year on May 14, teams can spend months discussing strategy. One week before the competition starts, participants are officially allowed to scout out the area.
Chris Wood of Team Sapsucker, fielded by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says you can plan out every minute, but there are always surprises.
“It’s fun to think about how to adjust the route during the day,” Chris says. “We usually have stops planned to the minute, but by the end of the day there are some species we will have seen earlier than expected and others that we are inexplicably missing. Trying to adjust at the end of the day is always challenging but fun.”
Chris says he mostly does the event for fun, but he also enjoys a little friendly competition along the way.
The World Series rule book reads, well, like a world series rule book. Birds can be spotted or heard only in New Jersey. Shorebirds must be within 100 miles of shore. Eggs do not count as birds. You may stand at the midpoint of a bridge over the river between New Jersey and another state. You may not disturb nests. You may not use an airplane.
Another rules says that 95 percent of the birds on a team’s list must be seen or heard by every member of the team. Since the likelihood of all members seeing or hearing every bird is slim, the contest allows 5 percent of the team’s total to include birds spotted by only two members.
Raising Money for a Cause
Participants say the event is less about life lists or even enjoying nature than about raising money and overall awareness for the preservation of bird habitats. Miyoko Chu, director of communications at the Cornell Lab, says Cornell teams have raised more than $2.7 million for bird conservation over the years.
“This is a worthwhile event because it raises funds to ensure there will always be enough birds for us and for future generations to see,” she says. “So it doesn’t matter whether you do this just for fun or for the competition. It’s a great event for all.”
World Series organizers estimate that the event has raised more than $8 billion for bird conservation since it started. And they’re aiming to continue this success with the next generation of birders. Students from first grade on can compete in the event’s youth challenge (those are the Lady Peregrines at left). There are also special categories for seniors and noncompeting participants.
Gaining in Popularity
The World Series of Birding isn’t the only game out there. Each April, during migration season, the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson, Texas, holds a weeklong competition to see how many of the more than 400 species of resident and migratory birds the teams can spot along the Texas coast.
In terms of both time and distance, “it’s the longest birding competition in the United States,” says tournament coordinator Carol Jones.
Winners of the event earn the honor of awarding a $20,000 grant to the conservation group of their choice. To date, Carol says, more than $700,000 has been raised for habitat projects along the Texas coast.
But the New Jersey and Texas competitions are just the beginning. Look around your area to get involved in competitive birding—and if you don’t find an event, start one! You’ll have a good time, and, more important, you’ll help ensure many more years of observing birds in the wild.