The missing ingredient in the conservation cake is…culture

Full Citation: Romero-Bautista, J. A., Moreno-Calles, A. I., Alvarado-Ramos, F., Castillo, M. R., & Casas, A. (2020). Environmental interactions between people and birds in semiarid lands of the Zapotitlán Valley, Central Mexico. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 16, 32. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13002-020-00385-1

People care about protecting species they care about

This past week, many Americans celebrated July 4th as the nation’s Independence Day. If you were in the United States (US) last week, I can almost guarantee you saw at least one image of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla). As the national bird of the US, the bald eagle has become a prominent cultural symbol, representing endearing values to Americans such as strength and freedom. What some people may not know is that in the mid-1900s, bald eagles were listed as endangered in the lower 48 states. Horrified by the thought of losing a bird with such cultural significance, congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940 to help promote the recovery of eagle populations. Soon following the passing of this act, in 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that was influential in the 1972 decision to ban the nationwide use of DDT, a toxic chemical used in insecticides and known to be responsible for the decline of several bird species, including bald eagles. Since then, populations of bald eagles and many other large birds have increased dramatically. In fact, today bald eagles are quite common throughout most of the US.

This conservation victory illustrates the power cultural importance can have in promoting the conservation of a species in danger. If there is a cultural connection with the species, it is more likely people will work to protect the species. Whether people realize it or not, many bird species play a prominent cultural role in societies worldwide. In the US, birds are commonly used as mascots for our favorite sports teams, logos for our outdoor gear, and even the namesakes for companies. Because of their widespread cultural appeal, birds can be used as rallying points for conservation programs. The power of birds as a public conservation tools is not confined to just birds as grand as the bald eagle. More common birds that are seen everyday can have powerful meanings to certain groups of people. This is especially true for rural, indigenous communities.

What do birds mean: an example from Mexico

Nestled among arid mountains, the community of Zapotitlán Salinas is rich in bird diversity and cultural history. Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Zapotitlan_salinas_Botanical_Garden,_Mexico_(Unsplash).jpg

In an effort to understand the cultural role of birds in a rural community of Mexico, a research team led by Yessica Angélica Romero-Bautista surveyed both birds and people in the Zapotitlán Salinas community of central Mexico. The community is located in a dry, semi-arid region, with a rainy season in the summer. Romero-Bautista and colleagues performed a two-part study. First, they surveyed for birds present in the valley. The surveys involved recording all birds seen and heard within an established area, while remaining stationary at a fixed point. Surveys were also conducted in agricultural areas, where local residents were likely to encounter the birds. The purpose of the bird surveys was to identify and compare what species were present in the area with the species locals knew to be present. The second part of the study involved conducting 30 semi-structured interviews with locals. The purpose of these interviews was to describe the practices, beliefs, norms, and local environmental knowledge of bird life. Questions addressed in the interviews involved assessing what birds local people recognized, the meaning they assigned to those species, and how management practices and uses of the birds had changed over time.

The research team recorded 89 bird species at sites surrounding Zapotitlán Salinas. Interviews with local residents revealed that they recognized 62 unique bird species in the region. However, local residents sometimes did not differentiate between species that were closely related, as they had 50 unique names assigned to the 62 locally recognized species. The interviews revealed that several birds had different uses and meanings among residents. Birds were directly used in the community for things like food, medicine, and ornaments. Some of these uses and traditions dated back to pre-Hispanic times. For example, hummingbirds, which represent rebirth and vitality to the locals, were used for medicinal purposes to treat epilepsy and, in more recent times, heart disease. Vultures, as scavengers, were believed to have access and contact with the underworld, and were used in medicine for purification.

Hummingbirds are an important cultural symbol throughout Mexico. Image credit: https://p0.pikist.com/photos/954/872/socket-mexico-city-historic-centre-zocalo-alebrije-hummingbird-event-little-bird-birds-thumbnail.jpg

Aside from direct uses, birds were linked to beliefs, myths, rites, and rituals. Common categories that emerged from the interviews were uses as amulets (good luck charms), omens (signs of warning of a future event), environmental change predictors, and rituals. For example, the vermillion flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus), known by locals as “Rayito”, is said to announce good luck when a person sees it, whereas the lesser roadrunner (Geococcyx velox) announces bad luck when it crosses a person’s path. Several species were recorded as predictors of climate and environmental change. The often-quiet lesser roadrunner indicates rain and strong wind on the rare occasion it sings.   


With such a bright and striking plumage, who wouldn’t consider it good luck to catch a view of the “Rayito” (Pyrocephalus rubinus). Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pyrocephalus_rubinus_-Piraju,_Sao_Paulo,_Brasil_-male-8.jpg

Coming across a lesser roadrunner (Geococcyx velox) is already a sign of bad luck, but if it happens to sing, you might want to brace yourself for an approaching storm. Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e8/Geococcyx_velox_1875_cropped.JPG
Conservation that neglects culture is unlikely to succeed

These uses are dynamic and have changed over time. With residents now having access to commercial meat and a nearby health center, food and medicinal uses of birds have declined. In contrast, the interpretation of birds as omens and environmental change predictors is still carried out and used in daily life. Local environmental knowledge linked to birds remains strong, and is transmitted generationally, from grandparents down to parents, and so on. While harvesting birds for a variety of uses may sound at odds with conservation, the strong cultural associations provide internal incentives for residents to ensure that they only harvest what is needed and maintain healthy bird populations. Bird hunting, for instance, is only carried out with a slingshot, and all parts of birds harvested are used for some purpose. Only adult birds are captured, and locals carefully and tightly monitor capture by those outside of the community.

The research carried out in this study is just one case study that highlights the various ways that birds have cultural importance, both through utilitarian consumption and intangible cultural relationships. The local knowledge and cultural importance of birds is a key factor driving responsible consumption and conservation of birds in the community. Worldwide, there are countless other ways that people ascribe cultural meaning to birds. Unfortunately, indigenous knowledge such as this is being eroded by modernization, and researchers and conservationists alike must help to ensure this knowledge remains in communities to be passed down through the generations. Modern conservation programs commonly ignore these cultural factors, yet it can be to their detriment. As pointed out by the bald eagle example and further highlighted in the Mexican case study presented, people often are most interested in conservation when it concerns a species that has some meaning to them. Identifying which species have cultural importance for different people in different regions is needed to develop effective conservation strategies, and to get people interested in conservation. Should the bald eagle ever become threatened with extinction again in the future, I’m sure Americans would do whatever it takes to protect the species, much as people throughout the world would likely do for birds that hold cultural importance to them.

Reviewed by: Jessica Wright

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Connor Rosenblatt

Connor Rosenblatt

I am most often found running, backpacking, or birding. When not pursuing one of those passions, I spend my time studying social and cultural factors in cities that influence biodiversity conservation policies. I am currently pursuing my PhD at the University of California, Davis. I previously earned an M.S. from The Ohio State University and a B.S. from Cornell University. In the past my research focused on population and occupancy modeling of shrubland and grassland birds.

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