Full Citation: Echeverri, A., Karp, D. S., Frishkoff, L. O., Krishnan, J., Naidoo, R., Zhao, J., Zook, J., & Chan, K. M. A. (2020). Avian cultural services peak in tropical wet forests. Conservation Letters, e12763. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12763
Do birds matter?
Close your eyes and picture a bird. Any species. Which one did you think of? Perhaps it was a colorful one that you enjoy looking at. Maybe it was one you see all the time in your neighborhood. Or, maybe it was one that you find annoying and consider to be a pest. All of these reasons you may have pictured the bird you did are because the bird provides some cultural service to you (or disservice, in the case of birds you find annoying). Cultural services can be broadly defined as the non-material benefit humans receive from a species. Recent research has focused on quantifying the cultural services provided by birds, and it turns out birds provide far more cultural services than you might imagine.
But are these cultural services likely to change in the future? There is vast scientific research out there showing that climate change is expected to lead to shifts in bird communities. In many places, these changes have already begun, such as some birds overwintering in areas they historically never did. As climate change alters bird communities, will cultural services also change? There has been little research as to whether the species that are most affected by climate change are species that provide high cultural services. Understanding this will be very important for conservation, as protecting species that provide cultural services is often of great interest to people in a community. Seeing the need for this kind of knowledge to improve conservation efforts, a research team lead by Alejandra Echeverri sought to identify avian cultural services provided in regions of different climate and land-use. They then sought to identify where the birds considered culturally important were found, and whether these species are at risk due to climate change.
How vulnerable are culturally important birds?
Focusing on northwest Costa Rica as their study system, the team employed a mixed methods approach. First, they obtained social data by surveying people across the region to determine which species they deemed culturally important. A total of 404 people were surveyed, and the respondents came from three primary groups: birdwatchers/birding guides, local farmers, and urbanites. To identify cultural services, the researchers asked respondents to rate a subset of the region’s birds on a scale designed to capture the following cultural services defined by Echeverri and the team: identity (species emblematic of the region), bequest (species people want future generations to see), birdwatching (species people enjoy watching), acoustic aesthetics (species people enjoy hearing), and education (species people enjoy studying). The researchers also asked about disservices (species considered annoying or harmful). The researchers then paired this social survey data with bird survey data in the region. From May-August during 2016-2018, the team surveyed birds across a landscape that varied in terms of precipitation, the main environmental factor that influences bird community composition. Rainfall was also examined as the environmental variable of interest because climate change is expected to reduce rainfall in the region.
Results revealed that all three groups of respondents assigned higher cultural value to the birds found in forests. This was true for all five classes of cultural services the researchers asked about. Additionally, birds perceived as providing cultural disservices were primarily found in drier, open habitats. Results from the bird surveys confirmed that the birds identified as providing cultural services were found at sites with higher forest cover, whereas birds identified as providing cultural disservices were less common at sites with forests. Tree cover alone did not result in high cultural services; rainfall was found to have an interactive effect, meaning cultural services were greatly enhanced at wetter sites. Thus, it could be concluded that cultural services provided by birds are greatest in wet forest sites for all groups of respondents. Since climate change is expected to result in drier conditions across the region, this suggests that culturally important bird communities are at great risk of declining.
Leveraging cultural importance for conservation
The most obvious implication of these results is that conservation efforts should be focused on wet forests. The species found in these wet forests generally have small home ranges, and are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly drying. The fact that these vulnerable birds are also of great cultural importance provides another incentive for local conservation efforts to focus on these wet forests. Loss of forests could erode the cultural services community stakeholders members from birds, and instead increase disservices if pest species become more common. However, the authors present an interesting paradox: could increasing the abundance of some species found in wet forests actually decrease their cultural services? It is possible that rarity has an important influence on the level of cultural importance a species has; this is particularly true for the birdwatcher group, which tends to value rare species more than common species. However, this is not likely to be the case, as the other stakeholder groups of farmers and urbanites ascribe cultural services to birds irrespective of their rarity.
In the case study presented here, the species most vulnerable to climate change are the ones that provide the most cultural services to the local community. This suggests that leveraging cultural services provided by birds may be an effective way to engage communities in conservation and generate widespread support for habitat protection. The mechanism of combining social survey data with bird survey data presented by the researchers is something that should be applied in many other settings, as the findings here may not hold true elsewhere. Regardless, identifying the culturally important species in a community is a necessary and highly effective first step towards improving conservation efforts.
Reviewed by: Elisabeth Lang