The past year abounded with viral internet birds: Mama Merganser adopted around 76 fluffy ducklings; Hot Duck turned New York into the city that always birds; and some polyamorous eagles have us rooting for an unconventional love story, to name a few.
From hit stories to hilarious memes, there's no question birds are all the rage on the internet these days. But how do you use the web to determine if a certain species is popular in the real world? That's what a pair of researchers recently sought to find out. By using Google searches for different birds as a proxy for their popularity in the real world, Cornell University researcher Alison Johnston and independent scientist Justin Schuetz ranked 621 birds according to the frequency people searched for their names. A birder taking a look at the results of the study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, won't be shocked by the most popular species, but they will also notice that the least-popular bird groups are some of their favorites: kingfishers, grebes, and gulls.
Unsurprisingly, the analysis showed that Bald Eagles garner lots of online attention—they are the national bird, after all. And owls as a group dominate the discourse despite the fact that they’re rarely seen by people. The most-searched bird name was far and away "Wild Turkey," the researchers found, but that is at least partly due to a certain holiday and whiskey brand. As the researchers expected, bigger, charismatic birds with conservation labels like "endangered" proved popular search subjects (as did sports team mascots).
Althought the results themselves are revealing, the researchers' interest goes beyond a Google popularity contest. Species awareness is an important part of conservation—people can only advocate for legal protections, like the Endangered Species Act, if they know about a given species. Same goes for volunteering or donating to efforts to save threatened animals—you can’t champion what you don’t know. And that's why the least popular birds deserve at least as much attention as those ever-popular owls. For those unacquainted with these groups, which seems like plenty of people out there, here's a quick introduction and a few reasons why they deserve your utmost respect and admiration.
These robin-size fish-darts were the least popular group in the analysis—a real shame. With their large heads, stocky bodies, and long, dagger-like bills used to spear unsuspecting fish from above, this family of birds is like none other. True to their name, these kings and queens of the river sport regal, colorful plumage and spiky, crown-like crests.
But don't be fooled by their royal nature—kingfishers know how to get down and dirty, too. During nesting season, they burrow into a muddy riverbank with their beak and claws, digging out a tunnel up to 15 feet long. (The birds take breaks to clean the muck from their feathers.) The female will then lay eggs and both parents will raise the young inside the new lair.
So why are such fascinating birds so unpopular? Size could explain their low ranking, Shuetz says, given that web searchers typically searched for larger birds. Or it could be a lack of awareness due to there only being three kingfisher species in the United States: the Belted Kingfisher, which lives throughout the country, boasts average popularity, while the other two—Green and Ringed Kingfishers, which live along the U.S.–Mexico border—fell short. Whatever the reason, there's one lesson you should take from this: Don't sleep on kingfishers.
Meet a kingfisher: The Belted Kingfisher has slate-blue wings and a chunky statement necklace above a white belly, with a rumpled crest to finish the look. Females also wear a belt of rusty red feathers across their abdomen. This species is common across North America, found in waterways from western Alaska to eastern Canada all the way south through Mexico. Running into one depends on the time of year—these stately birds follow warm weather, as they need unfrozen bodies of water to skewer a meal—but you will often hear their loud, ratchet-like call before you see them.
The current news cycle got you in a funk? There’s a grebe for that. Seriously, these birds are so wonderfully weird, they are guaranteed to brighten any day. Their red eyes and alarming call might spook some out initially—but once you see them dance, you’ll realize there's absolutely no cause for concern.
“They perform the most bizarre and energetic courtship dances,” says Kenn Kaufman, field editor for Audubon. For example, a male and female Western Grebe will repeatedly dip their long necks up and down while swimming before rising up on their legs and running in unison across the water, heads up, chests out, and wings thrust behind them.
For all their fancy aquatic footwork, they don’t do so well on land: Watch a video of a grebe awkwardly running on a beach and you’ll know exactly what I mean. To stay permanently afloat, grebes weave floating nests in the middle of lakes out of aquatic plants—and they can stealthily slip underwater without generating so much as a ripple, sinking like submarines.
Despite occasionally getting some internet love thanks to clips of their wild mating rituals, these birds also rank low in the search results. Johnston suspects the lack of interest is probably due to how much time the birds spend on the open water and that people rarely see them up close in real life. It's unfortunate, because this is one bird that knows how to put on a show.
Meet a grebe: The Hooded Grebe, an endangered species native to the high plains of Patagonia, performs an elaborate, neck-cracking tango you have to see. In addition to grebes’ characteristic red eye, these birds sport a hood of brown, white, and black feathers that can be raised and lowered when wooing a mate. They call to one another with a high-pitched, rolling trill.
Gulls, Terns, and Shorebirds
Considering how much Americans love their beaches, it’s always surprising how little they appreciate their resident birds.
First there are gulls, the ultimate survivors. The omnivorous, opportunistic feeders eat everything from fish to mollusks to other birds to scavenged carrion to popcorn to sandwiches. They’ve also learned to specialize in human refuse, flocking to landfills, dumps, wastewater treatment plants, and other unsavory places to hunt out malodourous meals. Gulls come in all different sizes and often have distinctive field markings. Despite their close proximity, few people seem to differentiate them by species, according to the analysis; worse, they’re more commonly called, gasp, seagulls!
Terns are more discerning eaters than their gull cousins. Fashionable in crisp black-and-white garb, they have a sleek build designed for long flights and diving for prey. These jetsetters tend to stick to the seashore and survive off fish, often seen hovering above the water searching for an unlucky meal. One species, the Arctic Tern, makes the longest migration trip on Earth, flying from Tierra del Fuego on South America’s southern tip all the way to Alaska and back each year.
While gulls and terns tend to dash through the skies in search of their next meal, shorebird species stick to beaches and marshes, making them easier to observe. Many even have their own signature look. Piping Plovers scurry across the beach on spindly yellow legs, Sanderlings run along the edge of the surf, and American Oystercatchers stride through shallow water, plunging their long orange bill in the sand for mussels, clams, and oysters.
Interestingly, these birds are some of the most popular among serious birders, Kaufman says, even if non-birders can’t tell them apart. Ergo, get interested in gulls and shorebirds, become a serious birder.
Meet a gull: The Great Black-backed Gull lives in the northern Atlantic and is the largest gull in the world. These fearless birds will steal food from other gulls and even hunt other bird species, like grebes or puffins—the latter being yet another species that landed low on the popularity list. Considering they have glowing beaks, that just doesn't seem right.