Some people connect with small colourful birds that they see in the yard, whilst other people are attracted to huge soaring eagles that they see on nature documentaries. Because conservation decisions are driven, implicitly or explicitly, by the values that people assign to species it is important to understand how people relate to different species, and what factors might change their perceptions of species over time.
Internet searches provide a useful index of public interest in different species and – when calibrated according to how often people might see each species – offer perspective on their relative positions in contemporary culture. So, we used Google Trends data describing the relative frequency of internet searches for different bird species and eBird observations describing the relative frequency of encounters with those species to characterize relationships between people and birds in the United States.
Looking across 622 species, we found that birds increased in popularity by 12% over sequential 5-year periods, even after accounting for increasing numbers of Google searches. Interestingly, species that gained federal conservation protections during the study increased in popularity more than species that didn’t and species that lost protections decreased in popularity. We also found that people tended to focus their growing curiosity about birds on local species rather than species that occurred in other parts of the United States. Our results demonstrate that relationships between people and birds are not static, but can vary even over short time periods. Species traits and labels that societies assign to species can both affect changes in public interest in birds and should be taken into account in future conservation efforts.