Saturday, April 20, 2019

Can North America’s Favorite Birds Drive Conservation Interest?

Boreal Owl Cross-referencing a decade of Google searches and citizen science observations, researchers say they have identified which of 621 North American bird species are currently the most popular and which characteristics of species drive human interest.

Study findings have just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In an announcement sent to the press lead author of the study Justin Schuetz said: “Google Trends data describe how often people search for birds and provide a snapshot of public interest in different species. In general, large birds, such as hawks and grouse drew more attention than small birds. People also expressed more interest in birds that visit feeders, are endangered, or have been chosen as sports team mascots. In addition, we found that owls — more than any other group of birds — were the subject of public curiosity.”

Surmising that people would probably search more often for birds they encountered frequently, the authors turned to eBird for the geographical piece of the puzzle. eBird is a global citizen science database of bird observations managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

They pooled the results into four categories which Schuetz and Johnston call “cultural niche space,” based on how frequently people searched for a species relative to how often they might encounter it in nature.

Though proximity to a species often plays a role in shaping public interest, the authors also found that some “celebrity” species, such as Common Raven, Barn Owl, and Whooping Crane, are popular even outside their range.

Co-author and Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher Alison Johnston said that Google data cannot reveal the underlying motivations for searches but knowing which species capture public interest matters for conservation.

“Conservation shouldn’t be a popularity contest,” Johnston said. “But we can start to understand why some species garner more attention than others. Then the challenge to conservationists is to raise awareness around lesser-known species.”

Understanding people’s interest in different bird species can also help conservation organizations focus their efforts, according to Schuetz: “Conservation groups might want to identify species in need of help that are regionally well-known but don’t have a reputation beyond that region. These species could be good candidates for stewardship programs that encourage a sense of regional pride.”

Try the widget the researchers created so people can see where their favorite birds land on the popularity spectrum.

Photo of Boreal Owl by Anna Martineau-Merritt.

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3 Responses

  1. Neal Aubel says:

    Just wondering…I grew up to evening visits to camp listening to whip-poor-wills [sp?]…haven’t heard one here in the eastern Adiriondacks in years…can you enlighten me as to their demise? Thanks…

    • Dana Rohleder says:


      They aren’t gone but the population is declining over much of their range. Little is known about goatsuckers (which also include nighthawks and Chuck-will’s-widow), so we aren’t sure exactly why. Best guesses are habitat loss and forest changes both in their breeding areas and overwintering areas. It is speculated that they do not do well with fragmented forests. Nighthawks used to breed frequently in towns that had a lot of flat, gravel roofs, so they are in decline as well.

      There used to be 3-4 breeding pairs within earshot of my house 20 years ago. This gradually diminished over the years and I don’t believe I heard any the last 2 years.

      • Neal Aubel says:

        Thanks so much…so meaningful to hear them when growing up…miss hearing them! Never a night without there eery song! I can’t spell a lick…

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