How much is that songbird at the feeder? Finch financials in Seattle v. Berlin

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In Seattle, the more educated you are, the more you'll spend on feeding birds like this house finch.

How much are songbirds worth? The question recalls that "Priceless" punchline from the Mastercard commercials and a poem by e.e. cummings: “I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”

But wildlife scientist John Marzluff, the Birdman of the University of Washington, is known for undertaking unusual bird research; he once donned caveman and Dick Cheney masks and harassed campus crows to prove that these super-birdbrains can recognize and remember human faces. So he set out, together with colleagues here and in Germany, to determine how much people in Seattle and Berlin, value their songbirds. The result, a paper entitled “How Much is that Birdie in my Backyard? A Cross-Continental Economic Valuation of Native Urban Songbirds,” was recently published in Urban Ecology.

Other studies have tried to put a value on endangered avian species and the sort of rare, charismatic birds that draw bird watchers and drive ecotourism. Marzluff told me this study is unusual in its attempt to value common domestic birds. It combines two metrics to reach that goal: How much people spend feeding songbirds, and how much they'd spend to get more of them (using finches and crows as a proxy).

The researchers asked a representative sample of residents in a range of neighborhoods whether they like songbirds, how much they spend each year feeding them, and how much they would pay to either boost or reduce the populations of certain species: house finches and American crows in Seattle; and, in Berlin, their German counterparts, greenfinches (which are pretty and mellifluous like American house finches), hooded crows (a nattier, less obstreperous cousin) and European magpies, another corvid species that many people see as thieves and pests.

I wonder about that methodology. The house finch is a cheeky immigrant from the Southwest (its scientific name is Carpodacus mexicanus) that thrives, like pigeons and house sparrows, in human-altered landscapes. It can drive out native birds such as purple finches. Some people who love birds might not be eager to see more house finches. Might it not make more sense to ask them how much they’d pay to support songbirds in general?

Marzluff says he and his colleagues wanted to give respondents a “significant scenario” to respond to. And house finches — common, visible and attractive, with their red hoods and sweet song — are a good proxy for other songbirds.

The survey results suggest that Seattleites do indeed value the finches highly. And it points up some intriguing differences between how Seattleites and Berliners view the birds around them.

For example, more Berliners feed wild birds, but Seattleites spend much more on average feeding birds ($72 a year) than Berliners do ($12). Perhaps that reflects Seattle’s much higher median income — or price of birdseed? — or the presence of a small, but dedicated coterie of bird lovers who spend a lot on their passion.

Berliners express higher regard for birds than Seattleites do, but we are more likely to join conservation organizations. In both cities, residents of densely inhabited central neighborhoods feed birds more than those living in spacious outlying areas (where the birds have more natural forage). In Seattle, the more educated people are, the more they spend to feed birds; in Berlin, more educated residents spend less.

Respondents in Seattle said they’d be willing to contribute, on average, about $20 a year toward public efforts to increase the abundance of finches. (That presumably means protecting or providing habitat, perhaps reducing outdoor and feral cats.) Berliners would pay $16. Berliners would also pay an average $8 a year to increase the population of crows and magpies. But Seattleites would pay about the same amount to reduce the number of crows. (Women and homeowners here tend to tolerate crows less than men and renters do.)

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The American crow. Credit: Flickr user CGP Grey

The difference in how the two cities view their crows may reflect differences between their crows. The European crows dress better; with their sleek gray bodies and black hoods, “they’re actually quite elegant,” Marzluff told me. “And they aren’t so in your face.” Seattle’s crows, by contrast, are conspicuous and assertive. Our crows, our selves; some draw the same comparison between human Americans and Europeans as well.

Marzluff thinks anti-corvid bias also reflects “some cultural baggage we carry about crows. It goes back to medieval times and the plague, when they would fed on corpses.” And there is a racist dimension; think Jim Crow and the cartoon duo Heckle and Jeckle.

After crunching all this data, Marzluff et al. estimate that Seattleites derive $120 million or more worth of enjoyment from the songbirds around them, The figure, he says, accords with the $4 billion-plus that Americans spend feeding birds each year. Berliners value their songbirds at $70 million or more.

This study didn’t try to tease out a relationship between songbird abundance and home values, but others have. One compared 368 home sales in the Lubbock, Texas, area and found that after other factors were sorted out, a high abundance and variety of songbirds correlated with $32,000 more in the average sale price. Another study done by UW students in Marzluff’s Avian Conservation Laboratory found a 5 to 10 percent bump for Seattle homes located near woodsy parks and greenbelts.

How much of that bump is due to plentiful songbirds is another question. Bird-friendly landscaping in itself might attract buyers. Or repel them; tangled thickets are very bird-friendly.

The “priceless” question also remains. Are dollars and cents really the best way to gauge the value of protecting songbirds and other threads in the natural fabric? Marzluff makes no such claims: “For me it’s a secondary reason to value birds," he says. "There are a lot of moral, ethical, ecological and spiritual reasons. But putting a dollar value on things helps some people think about them.”

Okay, bird lovers, start thinking. How much would you pay cat owners to keep their tabbies inside?


About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.