Northamerican birders in South America - Conclusions from a discussion on BirdChat in December 1997


After asking the next two questions (1 and 2) on BirdChat I got more than thirty often elaborate mails about this subject (thank you all!) Here are the conclusions based on comparing all the mails. I will try to focus on the more neutral factors, although some of the cultural will be mentioned too. The questions were:

1. Are there less N. American birders visiting South America than might be expected given the nearness of North America, and in comparison to the number of birders from Europe and elsewhere.

2. If so, what explanations can be given. And behind that, what can we do to get more birders to South America (which would be profitable for nature preservation there and for the birders community as a whole).

The answer on 1 is a clear yes, and several chatters even feel a bit ashamed of not going there, or not yet, or that they cannot convince other birders to come too.

The explanations for the difference are diverse, but many are either a matter of time or a matter of space. Besides that there are some obvious misunderstandings.

Time is important in several ways, the most important being that the average vacation is short in the US, only 2 or 3 weeks a year. In Europe this is longer: in Holland at least 4 weeks a year, and often 5. Besides that, we have (at least so in Holland) often the possibility to save free days by making a longer week than the standard (e.g. 40 hours in stead of the now usual 36 or 38). So you may end up with 5x5 + (c. 40x4)/8 = c. 45 days off! So you can have more than one vacation a year, and still have days for a long weekend off. What can be done on the meager situation in the US? Are the trade unions not interested in longer vacations?

Another time factor (although related to the former) is that for a short trip you want to maximise your birding opportunities. In several mails this is translated into the need of joining a tour group, and that is for many too costly. But this might be a misunderstanding: by making use of birding trip reports and regional books, and by preparing yourself well on the field guides and the sounds, you will save a lot of time when looking for a good spot where to bird, or when going through the pages of the field guide. Driving an (expensive!) hired car is often good for a short trip, but even that need not always be necessary. You can restrict yourself in these overwhelming areas to a few representative locations and take taxi's or buses to get there, or even a small plane of regular service to a location in the jungle. Nevertheless, even with a hired car the cost of an independent birding trip in the Neotropics is much less than in a tour group.

Age is another time factor that probably matters. The average age of the American birder would be higher than in Europe, and that would make them less adventurous. Others doubt this argument, but there was an interesting argument branching off from this: that most birders in the US have started their birding at a markedly later age than the average European birder, and so might have become less used to a bit adventurous birding travel than European birders would have. Others state that this is a mere question of culture: not wanting to meet other cultures, not accepting a lower comfort level, not being used to public transport, etc. I cannot do much on this topic, but say that I myself feel often very comfortable in the tropics, because of the easy going, the food, the birds! The age factor too might lead to the feeling of the need of a tour group. Again, I think that restricting the amount of inland travel when birding in the Neotropics by choosing a few good locations, might be an alternative.

There is a strange gap between the demand of birders for tours, and the the supply of mostly too expensive tours. I would say that especially in the USA marketplace this gap should be easily bridged by offering cheaper tours. But again, the comfort level may be a bit lower then. Maybe the cost of these tours can be reduced also by choosing other formulas, e.g. by just bringing people to good birding spots and let them bird more on themselves, so have less guides per group. Others point out the possibility of hiring local guides. One step further is to let a local organisation arrange an independent trip for you.

Then there are the spatial factors. After all, I think that the vastness of the US and the abundance of nature are an important difference indeed. And that they have it all in one country. In Europe, you have to go abroad soon when you want to see more of the species in your European field guide (nearly all field guides are for the whole of Europe). But then, where are the borders of Europe? Should you stop birding before or after Turkey, and why not cross over to Morocco when you are birding in Southern Spain? And how far go to the East, stop in Poland somewhere? What I mean is that we don't have so much this sense of the need of having birded all of Europe, and we might then as well cross over to the Americas in stead of going yet further to the East or the South in Europe and beyond. In several of the mails people said that they had still so much to bird in their US, so it may take a long time before they ever go birding abroad, because of the vastness and variety of the US. And indeed, there is much more nature left in the US than in most of Western Europe, so these Europeans have more urge to go abroad.

There is a related social factor that faintly came out in one mail. When a US birder travels around in his big country, he or she will have chats with other birders in and from all of these states, I clearly saw this in Texas and SE Arizona. This makes the birding a social thing that you would probably miss in the Neotropics. In Europe, we scarcely have this sense of social birding in other parts of Europe, partly because of language and cultural differences.

Speaking about language problems, there really is a misunderstanding in that you need to speak good Spanish in South America, as stated in many of the mails. Most Europeans will learn some words and phrases of Spanish before going to the Neotropics (or Portuguese for Brazil). Generally this will do for a birding trip, unless you want to have real conversations with the people there. To show what I mean,  here are some of my important Spanish words when birding in the Neotropics (find somebody for the pronunciation): uno (one), dos (two), tres (three), ..., noche (night), hotel (hotel), habitacion (room), coche (car), comida (meal), desayuno (breakfast), agua mineral (mineral water), cerveza (beer), para (for), los pajaros (the birds), donde (where), hasta (to, towards), pueblo (village), selva (forest), montaņa (mountain), ciudad (city), mediodia (noon), a las cinque (at five o'clock), temprano (early), en la maņana (in the morning), por favor (please), gracias (thank you), poco (a bit), mas (more), mucho (much), no (no), si (yes), este (this). Este no es todo (this is not all), but the people are very friendly in general, and will try to find out what you are trying to say, or are pointing at (like pan - bread).

Several birdchatters pointed out another misunderstanding. Many US birders would assume that there is a special dislike for gringo's (Northamericans) in Latin America. People who have been there don't believe so however. Of course you should be cautious, but probably no more than Europeans should, and no more than many other region. For recommendations for a safe attitude as a traveller, consult the usual travel guides like the South America Handbook and the Lonely Planet guides. Furthermore there are the travel advice services (on the Internet) of the Foreign Affairs departments. Here is another difference between the US and Europe, as pointed out in one mail (and checked by myself today). The US warnings are rather detailed, like "there have been cases of theft from hotel rooms", whereas in Holland the warnings are restricted to heavier things, and so for several countries they give no warnings at all. By the way, I would never, nowhere in the world, leave my binoculars in my hotel room. Besides the loss, it would mean the end of the birding trip.

A third misunderstanding might be the air fares, that they would be extremely high. When we flew to Ecuador from Europe, we had the cheapest ticket by flying via the States in stead of directly. And enquire for air passes that extend to Miami.

Quote from one mail: "Every time I think about doing a trip to Alaska, I think about how many more birds I could see in Central and South America, and change my mind."

Quote (to end with) from Steven Hilty's superb textbook Birds of Tropical America (Chapters): "In 1982, two ornithologists, Scott Robinson and Ted Parker, set out to see as many birds as possible in a single day in a rainforest in southern Peru. Their astounding total of 324 species was reached by walking trails near their camp and paddling a small dugout canoe on a nearby lagoon. During the entire day, they ventured less than a mile from their camp."

(Nevertheless, I like birding in the USA very much too.)


Addendum: after this summarizing e-mail, somebody wrote that liability is another factor - tour companies would not go on the cheap in fear of being sued when something goes wrong.