Sparked by Richard Louv’s book on Nature-Deficit Disorder, many organizations, agencies, teachers and the White House have made the push to get people outside for the benefit of their mental and physical health. Now there is another reason: to benefit environmental health. In a new study my colleagues and I show that outdoor recreationists—in this case, birdwatchers and hunters—are more likely than non-recreationists to carry out conservation activities.

We chose to publish the paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management because state wildlife agencies have a long history of designing programs for their hunting constituents (who contribute to the agency’s dollars and cents) but are not yet sure of the value of birdwatching. Hunters are dwindling while birdwatchers are increasing. Given the financial consequences, agencies are asking whether the growing flock of birdwatchers can compensate for the losses in hunter herds.

Our study focused on residents in rural, upstate New York, in areas with low population density and stagnant economies. These are areas known for the brain-drain, where young people define success as leaving their home town for urban centers. These are areas where poor economic conditions sometimes result in problems being framed as jobs-versus-environment. My colleagues and I wondered how rural people who are outdoor recreationists value their natural resources compared to those who are not outdoor recreationists. We found that, as co-author Ashley Dayer put it, “there is hope for conservation in rural communities, through both binoculars and bullets.”

The many Americans who are not familiar with the so-called consumptive forms of recreation (hunting and angling) may be surprised by the engagement of hunters in conservation. On the flip side, agencies concerned about declines in hunters should be pleasantly surprised that birdwatchers are also ardent conservationists. The conservation ethic arose from hunters, notably expressed by President Teddy Roosevelt and Aldo Leopold. Hunters pay for hunting licenses and support wetland conservation by purchasing duck stamps (which have financed the protection of over 6 million acres of wetlands) and hunting equipment (an excise tax goes to wildlife agencies). This type of monetary conservation support is easy to track and agencies rely on it.

Contributions of birdwatchers, on the other hand, are difficult to track. With no license or permit fees and no broad-scale mechanism for supporting habitat conservation or wildlife agency activities, it is difficult to see the conservation value of birdwatchers – almost impossible were it not for their high enrollment and impact in citizen science projects. Their elusiveness may partly account for a misperception of birdwatchers as free riders to the conservation efforts of state agencies.

We found that almost everyone in our upstate New York sample carried out certain conservation activities. The activities that have become the norm, even in rural areas, include recycling, energy conservation and making green-product purchases. The differences between wildlife recreationists and non-recreationists were most pronounced among a distinctive set of activities. Only birderwatchers and hunters carried out conservation activities that required a high level of commitment, such as habitat restoration, joining local environmental groups, engaging in advocacy for wildlife recreation and donating money to conservation.

For example, all other factors being equal, hunters were almost three times as likely, and birdwatchers three-and-a-half times as likely, as non-recreationists to enhance wildlife habitat on public or private lands. We also found that hunters and bird watchers were each about twice as likely as non-recreationists to donate money to conservation.

Hunters and birdwatchers, although different in demographics, are really not that different when it comes to conservation activities. In fact, we found they are sometimes one and the same individual. Our most striking finding was that individuals who were both hunters and birdwatchers had the highest likelihood of conservation actions. Those who were both hunters and birdwatchers were 4.7 times more likely than non-recreationists to carry out land stewardship. These dual hunter-birdwatchers were almost three times more likely than non-recreationists to donate money to conservation.

We don’t even have a proper name for these conservation superstars, other than hunter-birdwatchers (Early on, my co-authors pointed out that calling them birdwatcher-hunters was gruesomely too similar in word construction to duck-hunters, gamebird-hunters, and the like).

Our study design doesn’t allow us to say there is a cause-and-effect relationship between outdoor recreation and conservation activity. We simply looked at a range of characteristics of individuals and found that outdoor recreation stands out as the feature most strongly associated with certain conservation activities. We can’t rule out the possibility that carrying out conservation activities leads people to become outdoor recreationists. But it seems far more likely that those who engage in outdoor recreation become attached to nature and then opt to spend their time in protecting it.

Our findings are important for how state and federal agencies undertake the business of managing natural resources. The current model, where hunters pay the bills, is in jeopardy because hunting is generally declining. We may see new types of hunters on the horizon, just as we are seeing new types of farmers, as part of the locavore movement, but still agency budgets feel the loss. Yes, birdwatchers watch birds at home, at landfills and at sewage treatment plants. But birdwatchers are also important stakeholders in our shared natural resources. They will likely be of growing prominence as agencies diversify their portfolio of programs. The next steps are to figure out how to tap birdwatchers to harness and apply their interest in conservation. Will it be through a conservation tax on binoculars, bird feeders, and field guides? Will it be through more citizen science? Suggestions welcome!

I think birdwatchers, hunters and other outdoor recreationists often wake up with the dilemma expressed by E.B. White: “Every day, I am torn between the desire to save the world and the desire to savour the world. This makes it very hard to plan the day.” We hope our study helps natural resource agencies to plan the day.