Research Article: Are we choosing the right flagships? The bird species and traits Australians find most attractive

Date Published: June 26, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Stephen T. Garnett, Gillian B. Ainsworth, Kerstin K. Zander, Petr Heneberg.


Understanding what people like about birds can help target advocacy for bird conservation. However, testing preferences for characteristics of birds is methodologically challenging, with bias difficult to avoid. In this paper we test whether preferred characteristics of birds in general are shared by the individual bird species the same people nominate as being those they consider most attractive. We then compare these results with the birds which appear most frequently in the imagery of conservation advocates. Based on a choice model completed by 638 general public respondents from around Australia, we found a preference for small colourful birds with a melodious call. However, when the same people were asked which five birds they found most attractive, 48% named no more than three, mostly large well-known species. Images displayed by a leading Australian bird conservation organisation also favoured large colourful species. The choice model results suggest conservation advocates can promote a much wider range of bird types as flagships, particularly smaller species that might otherwise be neglected.

Partial Text

Birds are often used as flagship species to obtain support for conservation, including public relations, education and fundraising [1–5]. Originally flagship species were conceptualised as “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action” [6] and “species that have the ability to capture the imagination of the public and induce people to support conservation action and/or to donate funds” [7,8]. However, the definition of flagship species has now evolved to “a species used as the focus of a broader conservation marketing campaign based on its possession of one or more traits that appeal to the target audience” [9]. The modern definition gives greater recognition of the cultural specificity of flagships [1, 10] and of the need to tailor them to the market to which they are trying to appeal [4, 5, 9]. Such tailoring requires knowledge of market preferences. Inaccurate knowledge of preferences can mean that significant segments of the conservation market are overlooked. This means that benefits may accrue to a narrow range of conventional flagship species at the expense of others that may have attracted public support had market research been adequate [11].

To test our hypothesis, we employ a choice model to explore which aesthetic and other features of birds members of the Australian public find most attractive, avoiding imagery that may anchor respondents to particular species that may have public salience. We then compare this to a list of species the same people say they find most attractive, and the reasons for their selection. We also analyse the characteristics of the birds depicted on the websites of an Australian bird conservation group (BirdLife Australia and its associated organisations) and with the results of a plebiscite among 52 bird species undertaken by BirdLife Australia among its members and their social networks.

Even though the two methods of assessing the attractiveness of birds, direct nomination and choice modelling, were applied by the same people in the same questionnaire, they produced results that were surprisingly different. The preferences that emerged from the choice model were for species that were colourful, small to medium sized, melodious, confiding and more threatened than the average. However, given the opportunity to name the birds they found most attractive, many of the species people selected are large, with harsh calls and display little colour. In particular only a tiny proportion of the birds selected as a being particularly attractive were threatened or even rare, even though the average attractiveness score for threatened or rare species is no different to that of common species. The difference, we suggest, can be explained by public profile and knowledge of alternatives. Images of all of the top ten species listed by name are commonly depicted on commercial products, stamps and coins; their physical characteristics are celebrated on council logos, faunal emblems and in defense force mascots; and their names are appropriated for place names and sports teams [56–60]. By contrast birds meeting the attractiveness criteria emerging from the choice model have little public profile. We suggest that, just as only a small number of well-known artists dominate prices through selective exposure by galleries and dealers [61], the familiarity and popularity of a few iconic species has created an ‘attractiveness’ feedback loop, effectively excluding many other species that could benefit from having a higher profile.

We present results from an Australian-wide online survey on the characteristics of birds people found most attractive and also asked them to nominate their top five species. Based on traits alone, respondents preferred birds that are small, colourful, melodious and threatened. However, there was a poor match between these traits and the birds they named directly as being most attractive. Many of the birds people could name are large and iconic, reflecting an exposure in popular imagery. Advocates commonly use birds resembling these iconic species as flagships, potentially to the detriment of those not selected. We suggest that greater resonance with the public, and a greater return on investment in flagship promotion, could be achieved by increasing their exposure to species more closely resembling the types of birds the public actually do find attractive but simply don’t know well enough to name.




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