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.

Examiners' Comments

The thesis was very well received by all three examiners, with two placing it in the top 5% of theses they have examined. 

Specific comments include: 

'The candidate provides a timely and thorough exploration of the relationships between people's values, attitudes and behaviours with respect to threatened birds. This is approached from a comprehensive and appropriately designed suite of analytical techniques, leading directly to tangible findings of significance to both academic researchers as well as agency decision-makers.'

'This is a well-conceived and entirely successful thesis, remarkable in its ambition and scope, as well as its remarkably effective style. Indeed I would genuinely count this among the very best trans-disciplinary theses I have seen in all fields, not in the least because of the clarity of expression maintained throughout. This is a triumph in several dimensions.'

'The style was unexpected and most welcome, and a model of how social science methodology can be written!'

'The selection of the numerous case studies was inspired and a major part of the overall success of this project. While the logistical challenges appear to be invisible, there can be no doubt that they required serious effort.'

'Overall, the candidate has successfully grappled with complex theoretical topics and demonstrated an advanced level of understanding of them. This thesis makes a valuable contribution to the literature on conservation biology.'

'This study provides insights into the values and attitudes of experts in the area of bird conservation in Australia, how the social construction of threatened birds influences their conservation and how conservation strategies can be framed to influence policy development.'

'The author's mixed method study also has implications beyond academia. By demonstrating the high regard members of the public have for birds by quantifying public attitudes, it also has the potential to make an important contribution to policy making regarding the future of threatened birds in Australia.'