Birdwatching Is a Bright Spot in a Pandemic-Stricken Economy

Sales are through the roof for seed suppliers, birdhouse builders, and small businesses helping people connect with the nature in their backyards.

Kevin Hanzie feels kind of bad about having good news. After all, a global pandemic has killed more than 158,000 Americans and continues unabated. As a result, the country’s economy shrank by 9.5 percent from April to June, by far the worst quarter on record. Mom and pops are getting hit particularly hard: Nearly 7.5 million of the nation’s 30 million small businesses are at risk of closing permanently over the next few months, according to Main Street America.

But even as the country slides further into recession, one sector—Hanzie’s sector—is doing better than ever before: backyard birding.

“I say this somewhat sheepishly, but our business has been great because of the lockdowns,” says Hanzie, co-owner of Lizzie Mae’s Bird Seed, a manufacturer and distributer based in Millersburg, Ohio. He estimates that sales of Lizzie Mae’s house-mixed bird seed and various birdwatching accessories the company sources from other manufacturers have increased by about 50 percent compared to last year. “The positive impact on sales, if I can say there’s a positive impact to anything out of this, has been shocking, honestly,” he says. “We normally have a ten-day inventory in the warehouse, but for April, May, and June the seed was coming straight out of the mixer and onto the trucks.”

One of those trucks was going to Freeport Wild Bird Supply, a birding store in Freeport, Maine, where things look similar. “May was our busiest month ever in 16 years of being in business,” says Derek Lovitch, who co-owns the store with his wife, Jeannette. “I still have bare shelves all around my store.” The shop’s birdbath sales are up 80 percent over last year, and Lovitch has been routinely running out of birdhouses, hummingbird feeders, and even bird-themed face masks. “As soon as we open a box they’re half gone,” he says.

A few factors have fed the sales spike. For starters, birding-supply companies are considered essential in most parts of the country, which has allowed them to stay open when other businesses have had to close. Then there’s the most obvious factor: People have been stuck at home, and they’re realizing that birding is easy to do while staying socially distant. Longtime backyard birdwatchers have been filling their feeders more regularly, while people who are only just discovering birds are buying their first feeder sets, binoculars, and field guides.

The weather may have helped, too. Hanzie says a relatively mild winter probably allowed more birds to survive into spring, resulting in more visitors to backyards. In Maine, for example, Lovitch thinks an early drought drove more birds to feeders in the state. “People were home wanting to look at stuff and there was a lot of stuff to look at,” he says.

With so many people turning to birds for solace and diversion, the coronavirus has put significant strain on the supply chain. When Bonnie Regalia decided to switch her store to curbside pickup and delivery at the beginning of the pandemic, she called her suppliers to gauge how the plan would work. “Everyone was feeling pretty confident that they could supply us,” says Regalia, who’s been running Birders’ Garden in San Carlos, California, for 29 years. Soon, however, some of Regalia’s suppliers had to shut down for up to seven weeks due to local lockdowns. There was no way they could keep up with demand. “There’s a bit of a backlog,” Regalia says, particularly for feeders and accessories. Still, she’s seen a 37 percent increase in sales compared to last summer, driven mostly by sales of bird seed. 

Some manufacturers have had to deal with the pandemic’s global impact on top of what’s happening in this country. “We had some supply chain issues when India had their lockdown,” says Pat Tinker, a national sales manager at Woodlink, which manufactures bird feeders, houses, and accessories. “It’s very hard still to keep up with the demand. As soon as we build something we ship it right out.” Still, the company’s sales have increased by more than 50 percent compared to the first six months of last year, he says.

And then there’s the backyard birder's age-old nemesis. “People are learning what squirrels will do to their bird feeders,” Tinker says. Those first-time birdwatchers, eager to keep their feeders squirrel-free, are snapping up products like squirrel baffles and squirrel-proof feeders. Derek Lovitch, who owns the birding store in Freeport, says he can't keep baffles in stock. But at the same time, it seems spending more time in the backyard is convincing some people that small mammals are fascinating in their own right: Squirrel feeder sales are up as well. 

Back in Maine, Lovitch steps away from the phone for a minute to chase off a different backyard mammal, a groundhog. When he comes back, he says he thinks the main reason people are so interested in bringing birds to their backyard nowadays is pretty simple: “We’ve certainly had a lot of people come in and thank us for helping them keep their sanity,” he says. “I think a lot of people are finding that, hey, the birds are normal right now. So birds seem pretty cool because nothing else is normal right now.”