SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Watching birds is a billion-dollar industry in the U.S.

While studies from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife show that many bird fans watch birds in their backyards and around their homes, birders do leave the home to watch for birds.

An estimated 173,825 participants spent about 2.5 million total days between them in a year watching birds and wildlife in South Dakota, according to a 2017 report from the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) Department.

Saturday is National Go Birding Day, a day dedicated to those who will be seeking out birds including in their own backyards, according to several different birding sites in the U.S.

The 2017 study by South Dakota Game Fish and Parks (GFP) said wildlife and bird watching had a $51.7 million impact on the state’s economy.

A 2016 study from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife said most birders reported watching birds in their backyard or around their home. The study said there were about 45 million bird watchers in the U.S. The study focuses on bird watchers age 16 and older.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife study said trip and equipment expenses associated with traveling to see birds amounted to $39 billion that translated into $96 billion in total industry output. The total output includes any direct, indirect or induced effects of bird watching expenses.

Many states have reports on the economic impact of bird watching.

In 2011, Iowans spent $868,662,000 in watching birds, according to the Bird Friendly Iowa organization’s website.

KC Jensen, a retired South Dakota State University professor in avian ecology research and management and wildlife education, said the U.S. Wildlife Economic studies on the economic impact from participation in bird watching are solid and hold true today.

“In fact I think the interest is higher,” Jensen said.

More people got interested in bird watching during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic because it was an outdoor activity and they didn’t need to be around a lot of people, he said.

The membership on the Brookings birding club Facebook page grew by 400% during the first year of the pandemic, he said.

“That interest has not waned,” Jensen said.

How do bird watchers find birds?

There are maps, both paper and online, that direct new and experienced bird watchers to bird locations.

South Dakota, for example, has a lot of public land available for bird watching, Jensen said.

Robin in tree in April 2023

“There’s plenty of places to find birds as they migrate through,” Jensen said.

The National Go Birding Day is intentionally scheduled during the thick of migration, Jensen said.

“It’s a great time for birders to go out,” Jensen said.

A birding website from the South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union shares regular updates on sightings. When a user clicks on the website, it can find the link to the hotspot, which is updated with sightings.

For example, on April 27, a pied billed grebe was spotted at the Dakota Nature Parking in Brookings County. An eastern bluebird was spotted at Good Earth Park on April 24.

The Iowa Ornithologists’ Union has a similar website with hot spot sightings. Minnesota also has similar site

Bird watchers can also find apps that indicate where birds can be located or where they’ve been spotted.

Jensen suggested that new and experienced birders can use the Merlin app from Cornell University. Cornell has the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the All About Birds website.

The user can take a photo of bird and plug it into Merlin, which will try and identify the bird. Merlin can do the same for a recording of a bird song, Jensen said.

Although birding sites are located across South Dakota and neighboring states, there are usually multiple sites that are a close drive.

Use the Loess Hills in western Iowa as an example. Visit Loess Hills website has a page on birding. The page includes a birding map in the Loess Hills region and links to specific counties. The Loess Hills start around Akron, in northwestern Iowa and continue down through Sioux City and into northwestern Missouri.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources also has a birding link on its website.

South Dakota’s GFP also has birding list on its website. State parks may have regional birding maps available, but many of those area also available on the GFP website.

Prairie chicken

If the bird watcher is in Sioux Falls, the Great Bear Recreation Area (ski area) is a site on the GFP birding trail map.

The SD GFP has birding map for specific regions such as the southeastern part of the state. It has details about what birds can be found in the locations and directions on how to get to each. Areas on that map include Newton Hills State Park.

In western South Dakota, there are the Black Hills and Badlands Birding Trails.

South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa are home to several national wildlife refuges. The states also have national wetlands areas.

The Waubay National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern South Dakota is one.

The Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge in Ortonville, Minnesota, is near the border with South Dakota.

“(Big Stone) is a super great area,” Jensen said.

State parks in Minnesota offer additional spots to find birds.

Wooded areas, prairies and wetlands will attract birds and waterfowl. Birding maps and websites will help a bird watcher find different species of birds.

Oakwood Lakes State Park near Bruce is not far from Jensen’s home. It’s one of his favorite birding areas because it has prairie, lakes, marshes and woods.

Various bird watching clubs and organizations suggest respectfully looking for birds at cemeteries.

“Cemeteries, they’re great birding spots. They are one of the best,” Jensen said.

Many cemeteries have mature trees including evergreens, he said. Cemeteries are often free of disturbing noises.

Birders understand they need to keep their distance and respect any funeral that is in progress at the cemetery, Jensen said.

Audubon Society chapters in most states also provide locations for good bird watching.

What does a bird watcher need to find birds

Besides a location, a bird watcher may want binoculars.

Birding sites recommend binoculars but also say they aren’t a must.

Other items a bird watcher may want include a bird book to identify the birds and their sounds.

Some bird watchers invest in a scope or camera.

Also, a bird watcher who is a beginner or experienced could benefit from a tutorial to help better identify birds. The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds has one such free tutorial.

Jensen said a beginning birder needs to start with finding and identifying one bird and then build on that.

Travel South Dakota photo

He also suggests contacting a local bird club. Many bird clubs have Facebook pages, such as the club in Brookings and Sioux Falls. There’s also a birding club in western South Dakota called the Northern Hills Bird Club, which has a Facebook page.

Birders are friendly and willing to help, Jensen said.

What birds can a watcher see?

The GFP said there are 252 species of birds recorded in South Dakota and 239 of those with confirmed breeding.

Iowa has about 390 recorded species of birds, according to the Audubon Society.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said the state has 246 breeding bird species. 

This weekend, birders may see various species of sparrows. And depending on which state and what part of it the birder is in, there could be a white-faced ibis or long-billed curlew and various finches. But that is just a possible short list.