Characterizing the cultural niches of North American birds

Justin G. Schuetz and Alison Johnston at PNAS: “Efforts to mitigate the current biodiversity crisis require a better understanding of how and why humans value other species. We use Internet query data and citizen science data to characterize public interest in 621 bird species across the United States. We estimate the relative popularity of different birds by quantifying how frequently people use Google to search for species, relative to the rates at which they are encountered in the environment.

In intraspecific analyses, we also quantify the degree to which Google searches are limited to, or extend beyond, the places in which people encounter each species. The resulting metrics of popularity and geographic specificity of interest allow us to define aspects of relationships between people and birds within a cultural niche space. We then estimate the influence of species traits and socially constructed labels on niche positions to assess the importance of observations and ideas in shaping public interest in birds.

Our analyses show clear effects of migratory strategy, color, degree of association with bird feeders, and, especially, body size on niche position. They also indicate that cultural labels, including “endangered,” “introduced,” and, especially, “team mascot,” are strongly associated with the magnitude and geographic specificity of public interest in birds. Our results provide a framework for exploring complex relationships between humans and other species and enable more informed decision-making across diverse bird conservation strategies and goals….(More)”.