Pioneering new study identifies why some birds are better known than others

Posted by Daniel Allen on 7/11/2019


Co-authored by Ecosulis Nature Recovery Lead Dr. Paul Jepson, the landmark study shows how culturomics-based tools could boost conservation outcomes.


The osprey is one of the top 20 most well-represented bird species on the Internet, based on data from the new study.  Image: Daniel Allen


A pioneering new study, carried out by a team of scientists from the UK, Portugal and Brazil, has used a culturomics-based approach to rank the frequency with which scientific bird names appear online. The results show how culturomics - the study of human culture through the analysis of words appearing in enormous digital databases - could be used to evaluate global public interest in any particular conservation-related subject. This could be of enormous benefit to those involved in protecting and recovering nature.  


The analysis, which has just been published in the British Ecological Society journal People and Nature, reveals four factors that explain why some bird species have more prominence in culture than others.


Firstly, they have been known to science longer. This is perhaps unsurprising as it is likely that naturalists described the most culturally important, extraordinary or common species first.


Secondly, they are more conspicuous either because they are large, or are active during the day, or both.


Thirdly, they are species with which humans have directly interacted with over the decades through activities such as birdkeeping and hunting.


And finally, they are mainly found in countries where there is widespread use of the Internet.


The study also revealed that only a small proportion of the world's 12,000 bird species are well known, with nine out of ten species generating few if any mentions.


Implications for conservation

Until recently it has only been possible to identify which bird (and other wildlife) species people know about through limited questionnaires. But over the last five years the team involved with the new study has developed innovative internet analysis techniques which can rank differences in the prominence of species names on the internet. The team figured that people are most likely to generate internet content about species that are prominent in their outlook on the world, a characteristic they term "cultural salience".


The accurate determination of cultural salience has wider implications for how we attempt to rescue and restore wildlife populations across the world.


"While the Internet is clearly not a perfect representation of global culture, our finding that birds famous in Victorian times remain famous today suggests that cultural interest in nature moves slowly," says Professor Richard Ladle, lead author of the study. "This is significant because it illustrates the challenge of raising awareness of threatened species discovered in more recent times."


Dr. Paul Jepson, Ecosulis Nature Recovery Lead and study co-author, believes that the team's research could promote new ways of conducting and engaging people in conservation.


"Our techniques can be used to identify wildlife species with the characteristics to become famous, to map 'hotspots' of well-known endangered species, and identify links between countries where they are famous and where they are endangered," says Jepson. "Such knowledge could improve conservation planning and fundraising.


"Our research also raises the question of whether conservation resources should be focused on saving threatened (but maybe less well-known) species, or whether a proportion should be directed at recovering well-known species across their former ranges," he continues.


Feathered favourites

While the top-100 lists of species generated by culturomics techniques make for interesting discussion, the research team point out that these should be read with a note of caution.


"There is significant language variation on the Internet, which is dominated by English language content," explains Dr Ricardo Correia of the University of Aveiro in Portugal, who developed the techniques to extract, clean and analyse the data. "We used scientific names to minimise these biases. However, we currently lack a technique to reliably check that some scientific names don't also have popular meanings.


"Our technique is designed to analyse relationships in large data sets, rather than generate robust league tables of the presence of species on the Internet," he continues. "Nevertheless, these tables are fascinating and will improve as the research develops."



Scientific name

Common name


Gallus gallus



Tyto alba

Barn owl


Corvus corax



Sturnus vulgaris



Anas platyrhynchos



Parus major

Great Tit


Falco peregrinus

Peregrine falcon


Passer domesticus

House sparrow


Columba livia



Cyanistes caeruleus

Blue tit


Bubo bubo

Eagle Owl


Pandion haliaetus



Erithacus rubecula



Hirundo rustica

Barn Swallow


Ardea alba

Great egret


Pavo cristatus



Carduelis carduelis



Turdus merula



Alcedo atthis



Ardea cinerea

Grey heron

The global top 20 most well-represented bird species on the Internet, based

on data from the new study.


Want to know more?

For more information about the new study and its implications for global conservation, please contact Dr. Paul Jepson, Ecosulis Nature Recovery Lead ( / 01225 876 974).


This article can also be viewed as a press release at the Ecosulis Pressat newsroom.