When I was in sixth grade, the cool girls at my school drew up a document they called the popularity pyramid. Everyone was sorted into a handful of social categories; suffice it to say, I, along with the plurality of the class, was relegated to the lowest tranche and designated a Loser Beyond Belief.
Now a pair of scientists are doing something similar with the birds of the United States. In a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they ranked 621 avian species by their popularity. But unlike the pyramid of my past, this list isn’t meant to give any animal an inferiority complex; instead, the authors hope that it can be used to boost the profiles of lesser-known species in a way that’s best suited to their unique traits and talents.
The most popular birds in America are more or less what you’d expect: They’re large, they’re widespread, they’re popular mascots or children’s characters. The snowy owl, the common raven, and the bald eagle are all among the top 10. The authors of the paper, Alison Johnston of Cornell University and the Maine-based biologist Justin Schuetz, measured popularity by looking at the number of Google searches a species generates compared with the number of sightings recorded in a bird-watching database called eBird. Bigger birds tended to produce more hype, as did species that are mascots for sports teams. Bright colors, migration, frequent feeder visits, and endangered or threatened status also added small popularity boosts.
Many birds in the lowest ranks of the avian “it list” are found only in small areas in the southwestern United States. That puts them at a disadvantage, since, like the kids in middle school who hung out only in the band room, relatively few people are likely to have ever heard of them. Take the Couch’s kingbird, a gray-and-yellow number that came in dead last. Tim Brush, an ornithologist at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley, says the bird is ecologically “very successful” in South Texas, but doesn’t often travel to other parts of the country. Its cousin, the eastern kingbird, dresses in a much more subdued black-and-white getup, but its range covers more than half of the continental United States. The eastern kingbird ranks more than 200 places higher than the Couch’s.
Other less exalted species suffer from shyness, a condition that will be familiar to many an uncool sixth grader. The MacGillivray’s warbler—bird No. 617 out of 621—is what ornithologists call a “skulker” because it likes to stay under the cover of thick vegetation. When Jay Pitocchelli, who studies the species at Saint Anselm College, goes out in search of the birds, he says, “I’m looking for a mountain range, and then I’m hoping that there’s a logging road or there’s a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service road or there’s a mining road” that will take him far into the hills. That’s not a route most people are likely to take, which means that the MacGillivray’s warbler isn’t a bird most people are likely to see and Google.
The popularity (or lack thereof) of many species can’t be helped. Their appeal to humans “is, to a large extent, going to be determined by the evolutionary history of the bird as well as a lot of the behavior of the bird,” says Sean Mahoney, who studies Lucy’s warblers (No. 619 out of 621) and other birds at Northern Arizona University. That is to say, you can’t change the fact that these birds are small, dull-colored homebodies who hate social interaction. And you can’t change the fact that humans think all those characteristics are boring.
That, according to Mahoney, is the point of the paper. “This is a really important paper because it allows us to identify what it is about birds that people value,” he says. Given what these rankings reveal about how humans judge different species, he says he would plan conservation efforts around Lucy’s warblers in a very specific way. He wouldn’t emphasize the bird’s small stature or its gray-and-brown feathers, he says, because “people don’t care about these things.”
Instead, he’d point to the important ecological role Lucy’s warblers play in the Southwest: The birds are the only western warblers that nest in cavities, and they help maintain those cavities for other animals such as lizards, snakes, and even small mammals that use them to escape the heat. “I think that would be something that people could get on board with,” he says.
Other less glamorous species have different redeeming qualities, which could be leveraged to craft and improve their public image. MacGillivray’s warblers, despite their shyness, like to broadcast their originality—“almost every individual bird has an individual song, different from the one next to him,” Pitocchelli says. Couch’s kingbirds, the biggest losers of all, are devoted parents. They aggressively defend their young from much larger predators such as hawks, and use their body to shade their eggs from the boiling Texas sun.
Deborah Finch, of the U.S. Forest Service, says there are plenty of ways dull-colored birds can make up for their less compelling exteriors. “There’s a lot of species that can be flashy and drab at the same time,” she says. “They’re flashy because of their behavior.” The plain chachalaca, for example, is a pheasant-like bird with brown feathers. Its favorite activity is hopping up into a tree and screaming at the top of its lungs. At No. 604 out of 621, it’s still pretty unknown, but at least it’s got a big personality. That’s something the uncool among us can all get behind.