With nearly 10,000 species flying the friendly skies, birds are one of the world’s most studied animal groups. What causes human interest in certain birds? A new study aims to describe how Americans view the winged creatures around them.
Justin Schuetz, a biologist and researcher in Maine, and Alison Johnston from New York’s Cornell University analyzed 621 bird species. Results are reported in their study “Characterizing the Cultural Niches of North American Birds.”
Humans and birds have lived together since day six of creation. (Genesis 1:20, 26) The study looks at human interest in birds. “Conservation of species is driven largely by human decisions,” Schuetz and Johnston explain, “so it is important to understand how and why people value species differently.”
Schuetz and Johnston reviewed bird-related Google searches from 2008 to 2017. They wanted to learn how popular various birds are. Analysis revealed where each search came from, where each species lives, and how often it’s sighted in different places.
The study divides birds into celebrities, friends/enemies, neighbors, and strangers. Peregrine falcons, ravens, and whooping cranes, are among the celebrity birds. Ruffed grouses and purple martins are friends . . . or enemies. The Abert’s towhee is a neighbor. And the Brewer’s sparrow? A total stranger—to humans, if not to its Creator. (Matthew 10:29)
Birds in the “celebrity” category attract lots of Google attention even though sightings are rare. To reach celebrity status, a bird’s popularity must extend outside its natural habitat range. These birds have “a reputation beyond where they live,” says Schuetz.
Next came the “friends or enemies” category—so named because search results didn’t reveal whether searchers’ feelings about these familiar birds were positive or negative. Friends/enemies get more Google time than expected but mostly in the states where they live.
Neighbor birds weren’t Googled often, and when they were, it was in areas where the birds live. Finally, there were “strangers”—birds with little Google interest anywhere, anytime.
Schuetz and Johnston’s research gives insights into what makes a species popular. Bigger bodies, colorful plumage, and regular birdfeeder visits boosted a bird’s score—as did being a professional sports team mascot. Labels such as “endangered” or “introduced” also affected human interest in a species.
The big bird surprise? “People seem to have an inordinate fascination with owls we couldn’t account for,” Schuetz says.
“It’s great to see how much we know and love some species,” says David Ringer of the National Audubon Society. “I hope that many bird ‘strangers’ will become ‘friends,’ and ‘neighbors’ will turn into ‘celebrities.’”