Measuring the Popularity of North American Birds

The largest owl in North America, the Snowy Owl. New research shows that this individuals size may help with his popularity among us humans, but his lack of colour might not (Image Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Characterizing the cultural niches of North American birds (2019) Schuetz & Johnston, PNAS, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1820670116

The Crux

For all our attempts to maintain objectivity in science, often the reality is that the more people value a bird species, the more likely our conservation efforts are to be successful through public support. As such, figuring out which birds are popular, and where, could give us some crucial information on where we’ll need to fight hardest to help species persist, and where our efforts at science communication could use some work.

This week we look at a novel paper that tries to assess which types of North American birds are popular with the public, and whether that popularity is confined only to their home states, or whether it is shown in surrounding areas as well.

What They Did

The researchers used observations of groups of bird species from eBird, and compared this to Google search rates for those birds throughout America. The residuals of this relationship were used to determine popularity – if birds were googled far more than they were sighted, they were considered popular, and vice versa.

The researchers then tested for ‘congruence’. If a bird’s popularity was mainly concentrated to the areas it was mostly sighted, it was considered as highly congruent. If its popularity didn’t seem to correspond to any particular region or if it was popular outside of areas it was spotted, it was less congruent.

The researchers then compared popularity and congruence to several traits, including the birds size, whether or not it visited feeders, even whether or not it was a sports mascot.

Did You Know: Anthropomorphism in Birds

We like to think of birds are these idyllic little creatures, but the realities of their lives can be very different fro what Disney movies taught us. Fairy blue wrens and magpies are among the most promiscuous species on the planet, with both having elaborate behaviours involving sneaking off on their mates. Tiny birds like shrikes are vicious predators which skewer smaller species for safekeeping, and don’t even get me started on ducks. As Dan Baldassarre put it in this week’s interview, ‘Most birds, especially during the breeding season, are just full of raging hormones and either trying to mate with or kill everything that they come across. And I don’t think that’s an attribute that most people get when they see a lovely little chickadee land at their bird-feeder.”

What They Found

Strigiformes (owls), Falconiformes (falcons and caracaras) and Galliformes (turkeys, grouses, etc.) were the most popular orders of birds. Owls were the least congruent of the three groups, whilst turkeys and grouse were the most congruent. Podicepiformes (Grebes) and Charadriiformes (waders, gulls and some other coastal species) were the least popular.

Resident species (those that don’t migrate) were not more popular, but more congruent, possibly because locals get more used to seeing them throughout the year. Mascot species were more popular but also less congruent, suggesting they boost a species popularity in areas they do not reside in. Larger and more colourful birds were also more popular and more congruent.

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Unfortunately for this western Grebe, his order of birds are one of the least popular in North America (Image Credit: Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Problems

One of the biggest problems here is that the researchers don’t know anything about the motivation behind the Google searches. There’s no way of knowing whether a search was made in order to find out how to get rid of a bird, or whether it was made to see whether a bird made a suitable pet.

So What?

This study serves to highlight which species are currently underappreciated or unknown throughout North America, and it’s easy to apply to other areas where there is large amounts of bird survey data available. This is a great tool for conservationists who need to know where to focus their efforts, as this makes it easy to tell which threatened species are less popular, and need their status communicated to the public more urgently.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who detests birds but will draw them. You can read more about Sam’s research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter @samperrinNTNU.

3 comments

  • When I saw the snowy owl at the top of the blog I immediately thought of Harry Potter. It made me think that maybe movies or series can also play a role in making a species popular. True, we wouldn’t be able to tell if the search was to get rid of the species, to help the species if stranded or just to imagine having Snowy as their messenger. Loved the blog though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right, I’m sure roles in movies would play a part in a bird’s popularity. I remember that after Finding Nemo came out clownfish popularity shot up wildly (though whether that translated into conservation funding I’m not sure). Seems to vary though, 2011’s Rio did well in cinemas but it doesn’t seem to have helped the Spix’s Macaw. There’s an entire article in this I feel.

      Like

      • Interesting observation! It has left me wondering now. You’re right, there might be an entire article in this- many movies have hyped up the popularity of the species and many may not have been successful in doing so.

        Like

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