PhD Thesis

Valuing birds: understanding the relationship between social values and the conservation of Australian threatened avifauna

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The thesis examines relationships between people’s values, attitudes and behaviours with respect to threatened bird conservation in Australia. Three main research questions are addressed regarding:

  • how Australians value threatened birds;
  • who is involved in threatened bird conservation and how they communicate their values;
  • and whether the values held for particular species of threatened birds affect the success of strategies used to conserve them.

The inquiry is situated within the discipline of social psychology, social constructionism theory and the field of human dimensions of wildlife research. It is informed by Kellert and Clark’s (1991) wildlife policy framework and Kellert’s ‘attitudes towards animals typology’. An interpretive, mixed-methods approach examined values held by different sectors of Australian society. A new typology of 12 avifaunal attitudes was developed to describe the different ways Australians value birds. Three quantitative online surveys of 3,818 members of the public examined Australian attitudes towards threatened birds. Three qualitative case studies (three matched pairs) of Australian threatened birds investigated the opinions of 74 key informants about the influence of stakeholder values, and those of other sectors of society, on threatened bird conservation.

This research demonstrates the importance of understanding how social factors influence wildlife policies and processes relating to threatened bird conservation. It highlights consequences associated with privileging scientific values in the conservation process. The findings reveal how the social constructions of threatened birds and the issues affecting them influence societal interest and conservation investment. The results provide decision-makers with insights into developing effective frames to convey a broad range of threatened bird values to policy-makers and society.


Various aspects of this research have been published so far…

Garnett, S.T., Ainsworth, G.B., Zander, K.K., 2018. Are we choosing the right flagships? The bird species and traits Australians find most attractive. PLoS ONE 13 (6), e0199253.

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. 


Ainsworth, G.B., Fitzsimons, J.A., Weston, M.A., Garnett, S.T., 2018. The culture of bird conservation: Australian stakeholder values regarding iconic, flagship and rare birds. Biodiversity and Conservation 27 (2), 345-363.

Iconic, flagship and rare threatened bird taxa attract disproportionate amounts of public attention, and are often used to enable broader conservation strategies. Yet, little is known about why certain taxa achieve iconic or flagship status. Also unclear is whether the perception of rarity among those acting to conserve threatened birds is sufficient to influence attitudes and behaviour that lead to effective conservation action and, if so, which characteristics of rare birds are important to their conservation. We interviewed 74 threatened bird conservation stakeholders to explore perceptions about iconic, flagship and rare threatened birds and classified their attitudes using a new typology of avifaunal attitudes. There was a relationship between societal interest and conservation effort for threatened species characterised as iconic, flagship and rare. Iconic species tended to arouse interest or emotion in people due to being appealing and readily encountered, thereby attracting conservation interest that can benefit other biodiversity. Flagships tended to have distinguishing physical or cultural characteristics and were used to convey conservation messages about associated biodiversity. Attitudes about rarity mostly related to a taxon’s threatened status and small population size. Rarity was important for threatened bird conservation but not always associated with attitudes and behaviour that lead to effective conservation action. We conclude that conservation action for individual threatened bird taxa is biased and directly influenced by the ways taxa are socially constructed by stakeholders, which is specific to prevailing culture and stakeholder knowledge.


Ainsworth, G.B., Aslin, H.J., Weston, M.A., Garnett, S.T., 2016. Do social values influence levels of conservation effort in threatened species? The case of two Australian chats. Oryx 50 (4), 636-645.

This research aims to understand why one of two almost identical subspecies of the Australian yellow chat Ephthianura crocea has received significantly higher levels of local and institutional support than the other despite both having the same conservation status and taxonomic distinctiveness, factors commonly thought to influence conservation effort. Using a qualitative multiple case study approach we explored how a range of social factors, including stakeholder attitudes and institutional, policy and operational aspects, might have affected conservation efforts for the two taxa. Our results suggest that the conservation trajectories of these two subspecies have diverged since their identification as threatened species in 2000 because of differences in the social landscapes within which they persist. For one subspecies local advocacy was kindled initially by the small number of local endemic bird species but developed into a strong emotional engagement, resulting in increased local awareness, government funding, and effectiveness of conservation action. The other subspecies has had to compete for attention with approximately 200 other threatened taxa occurring in its region. No individual advocate has accorded this subspecies a high priority for action, and none of those responsible for its conservation have seen it or acknowledged an emotional attachment to it. Our findings confirm that initiation of conservation effort is strongly tied to the social values of individuals with power to take action, regardless of legislation.


Ainsworth, G.B., Aslin, H.J., Weston, M.A., Garnett, S.T., 2016. Social values and species conservation: the case of Baudin's and Carnaby's black-cockatoos. Environmental Conservation 43, 294-305.

We investigated how the socio–political and ecological environment are associated with the conservation management strategies for two rare, endemic and almost identical Australian white-tailed black-cockatoos: Baudin’s (Calyptorhynchus baudinii) and Carnaby’s black-cockatoo (C. latirostris). Substantially less investment and action has occurred for Baudin’s black-cockatoo. Interviews with key informants revealed that this disparity has probably arisen because Baudin’s black-cockatoo has long been considered a pest to the apple industry, lives primarily in tall forests and has had little research undertaken on its biology and threats. By contrast, Carnaby’s black-cockatoo has been the subject of one of the longest running research projects in Australia, is highly visible within the urban environment and does not appear to affect the livelihoods of any strong stakeholder group. We suggest the social context within which recovery efforts occur could be an important determinant in species persistence. We argue that social research is fundamental to a better understanding of the nature of efforts to conserve particular species, the factors associated with these efforts and their likelihood of success.


Zander, K.K., Ainsworth, G.B., Meyerhoff, J., Garnett, S.T., 2014. Threatened bird valuation in Australia. PLoS ONE 9 (6), e100411.

Threatened species programs need a social license to justify public funding. A contingent valuation survey of a broadly representative sample of the Australian public found that almost two thirds (63%) supported funding of threatened bird conservation. These included 45% of a sample of 645 respondents willing to pay into a fund for threatened bird conservation, 3% who already supported bird conservation in another form, and 15% who could not afford to pay into a conservation fund but who nevertheless thought that humans have a moral obligation to protect threatened birds. Only 6% explicitly opposed such payments. Respondents were willing to pay about AUD 11 annually into a conservation fund (median value), including those who would pay nothing. Highest values were offered by young or middle-aged men, and those with knowledge of birds and those with an emotional response to encountering an endangered bird. However, the prospect of a bird going extinct alarmed almost everybody, even most of those inclined to put the interests of people ahead of birds and those who resent the way threatened species sometimes hold up development. The results suggest that funding for threatened birds has widespread popular support among the Australian population. Conservatively they would be willing to pay about AUD 14 million per year, and realistically about AUD 70 million, which is substantially more than the AUD 10 million currently thought to be required to prevent Australian bird extinctions.