When Snowbirds Become Staybirds

The demographic commonly known as snowbirds, remains an established population through the US Sunbelt each winter season. As refugees from the frozen north, snowbirds escape frigid, windy, icy, and snowy climes at home by migrating southward each year.

When Snowbirds Become Staybirds
When Snowbirds Become Staybirds

Then almost as a rite of summer the migratory trend reverses itself and snowbirds head back north from whence they came. Or do they, anymore?

In other words, they may be staying for the summer.

In an attempt to track snowbirds flocking in and out of the state, Arizona media outlets have initiated a project to determine whether the term snowbird and all that it implies is still accurate.

They want to find out if those who have come to be known as snowbirds truly keep two residences and treat them as two separate brick-and-mortar homes. Or, one permanent residence and RV south for winter.

Or, has that pattern altered? Have snowbirds become staybirds?

Do they live in Arizona most of the year and take off for several months to visit their hometowns or travel elsewhere when the sun blazes in the Southwest, and then return to their yearlong home in Arizona?

Undoubtedly, these same questions have been pondered in Florida, Texas, and southern California.

Canyon Vistas RV Resort, Gold Canyon, Arizona
When Snowbirds Become Staybirds. Pictured above Canyon Vistas RV Resort, Gold Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For years now, the migratory patterns and numbers of snowbirds have been somewhat a mystery. Arizona State University, which used to track snowbirds flocking in and out of the state, no longer does so.

A local survey by the Ahwatukee Foothills News suggests that the number of Arizona winter visitors is not decreasing and that more of them are becoming yearlong Arizona residents.

The Valley’s proliferation of single-family homes have made research more difficult than it was when most snowbirds stayed in an RV/MH park for four to six months in places like Yuma, Tucson, and Apache Junction.

In an attempt to shed some light on an issue that has significant cultural, social, and economic impact on the entire state, various media began by asking questions of a variety of people, groups, and organizations to determine how things have changed since ASU last charted the Snowbird pattern.

Did you start out as a Snowbird and end up a Staybird?

Phoenix Metro RV Park caters exclusively to an over-55 age group. Jan Venard, the park’s assistant manager, noted that the business has been at its peak during recent snowbird seasons, but almost everybody that can leave departs for the summer. Venard, who been at the park for three years, hasn’t noticed significant changes during her tenure.

On the Colorado River in the southwest corner of Arizona, Yuma’s been at the crossroads for centuries. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
On the Colorado River in the southwest corner of Arizona, Yuma’s been at the crossroads for centuries. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Diane Rossell has managed the Tempe Travel Trailer Villa long enough to see the changes at the macro level. She also agreed that winter business has boomed in the past four years. The most significant change, however, is the increase in summer residents. According to Rossell, usually 60 out of 160 lots remain vacant during the summer, but in the past four years, only 30 lots have been vacant. Instead of maintaining their original home base, many of them have elected to reside permanently in the RV park.

Contempo Tempe, another RV park, also said fewer winter residents are leaving Arizona during the summer, about 15 percent compared to about 25 percent in the past.

Supplementing information from mobile home communities, senior activity centers offer a softer angle on snowbird trends.

The Ahwatukee Recreation Center gives retirees the opportunity to socialize and learn new hobbies. The recreational center noted that while it has less participation during the summer, the discrepancy is not as big as it used to be. The findings of the Ahwatukee Recreational Center would seem to corroborate the observations of local RV parks.

Sedona and Red Rock Country
Sedona and Red Rock Country, a vacation hotspot, has appeal for every member of the family. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The evidence indicates that the snowbirds haven’t diminished. If anything, out-of-state visitors have increased their presence. The only change is that many of them are settling down on a permanent basis.

While they offer an indication on their own, such information would be bolstered with data such as seasonal delivery stop/starts by the U.S. Postal Service. But those figures simply are not available.

The same could be said of utility shutoffs. But the companies that deliver gas, electricity, and water do not keep that kind of data.

So, where can one turn to for a clearer picture of current summertime population trends?

The U.S. Census Bureau might be one place. Again, the data is inconclusive.

So, while the question may not have a definitive overall answer at this point, there are indicators. And there are plenty of folks who would like to know more.

Worth Pondering…

A saguaro can fall for a snowman but where would they set up house?

—Jodi Picoult

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Could Winter Texans Become Extinct?

The University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA), which has tracked Winter Texansfor 25 years through a voluntary biennial survey, found that the average age of respondents in 2011 was 71.2, compared with 70 in 2010, 69.5 in 2008, and 68.7 in 2006.

The Roseate Spoonbill uses its long, flat, spoon-shaped bil to strain small food items out of the water. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 2006, nearly 10 percent of respondents were younger than 60, but last winter only 4 percent were. Similarly, respondents this year said they had been coming to the Valley an average 10.4 years, compared with 9.1 years in 2010 and 2008 and 8.8 years in 2006.

The responses suggest that the same Winter Texans may be returning to the Rio Grande Valley year after year without being replaced with new, younger ones, reports The Monitor.

“It is (a concern) to me and I would think it should be to the Valley businesses that are interested in targeting Winter Texans,” said Penny Simpson, who co-authored the study.

There is no way to tell for sure if the survey results from 1,443 of the estimated 133,400 Winter Texans represent an accurate sample. It is possible that older people responded more, but if so, that would be a shift from past years.

Overall numbers of Winter Texans are difficult to capture, but believed to be down slightly from an estimated 144,000 in 2010.

Janet Poor, manager of Shady Acres RV Park in Donna told The Monitor that every year at her 300-plus-site park the faces are the same. “We’re getting the same ones coming down,” she said.

The great kiskadee is a large member of the flycatcher family. It is about ten inches in length. It has black and white stripes on the crown and sides of its head. It has a white line above its eyes. Its chest and undersides are a bright yellow and its throat is white. Its back and wings are brown and its bill and legs are black. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I would love to get new people down here.”

Poor said that in her experience, national media attention on border problems made it difficult to recruit new visitors.

“When we get calls from new people asking about down here, the first thing they ask is: ‘How bad is it down there?’” she said.

But the vast majority of wintering retirees who do come to the Valley are still visiting Mexico — 84 percent, down from 95 percent in 2006. Several observers said the study is on par with their experiences.

Joe Nelson, 71, who has lived year-round at the McAllen Mobile Home Park for a decade, said that park has some 14 new units this year—but they’re all moving from other area parks.

“The young stuff isn’t coming,” he said.

Others in the Valley said they are still seeing young retirees come to town. Rod Graham, who operates a San Juan business creating photo directory books of Winter Texans for dozens of parks and operates the website, The Winter Texan Connection, said the survey findings did not align with his experience.

“I won’t dispute their average, but from my experience, I am seeing the baby boomers come,” said Graham, 57.

“I’ve been down here 13 years and when I came down here, everything was country western … Within the last three or four years we’ve had rock ’n’ roll bands go play in the parks and to me that’s indicative of my generation.”

Graham added that he has not noticed any demographic shifts in the hundreds of Winter Texans he photographs and has seen hugely increased traffic on his website, which he attributes to a potentially younger crowd viewing it.

Area cities are paying attention to the needs of the Winter Texans, who contributed some $800 million to the economy in 2010, according to the study.

Martha Noell, president of the Weslaco Chamber of Commerce, presented the findings to the City Commission last month and discussed things the city could do to attract visitors from colder climates, including keeping areas clean and marketing up north.

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Luis Bazan, president of the Pharr Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses in the city had noticed a Winter Texan decline overall, but that there did seem to be some newcomers, which he called “a new breed” looking for different activities.

Simpson agreed and said she would consider further analysis on what types of activities the next generation of retirees prefers.

“That’s an important question I think we need to have answered: How do we target baby boomers?” she said.

UTPA Survey Average Winter Texan ages by year:

  • 2012: 71.2
  • 2010: 70
  • 2008: 69.5
  • 2006: 68.7

Texas Spoken Friendly Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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