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.