Birds are one of the most identifiable and varied classes of modern vertebrates [1
]. However, many bird species and population numbers are in decline, primarily due to habitat loss and pollution [2
]. Government policies designed to protect vulnerable wildlife populations are dependent on strong public support to help justify the cost of taking action. Advocates of conservation seek to encourage public action by cultivating a more empathetic and knowledgeable public (e.g., environmental centers, summer camps). However, there is still a considerable amount of complacency and ignorance regarding the specific conservation needs of select wildlife [3
]. In the United States (US), private lands are critical to the maintenance of many species as well as the recovery of federally listed endangered species [5
]. However, the subject of wildlife habitat conservation on private lands is often relegated to the idea that it is one of the benefits of land ownership (i.e., private benefit) rather than a public service. Research on family forest owners in the US, one of the dominant categories of forest landowners, shows many owners have a strong ethical motivation to do right by the land and for wildlife [7
]. However, wildlife conservation on private lands can result in conflict when private interests are at risk, such as in the use of regulatory interventions that may interfere with the free exercise of private property rights [8
]. The importance of private lands to bird conservation merits an examination of how public opinions about the role of private lands may interact with attitudes toward wildlife conservation [9
Research into environmental education has found that helping people connect to nature and learn about wildlife increases the perceived value of nature and conservation actions [10
]. Perceptions of value and the desire for more information often occur within a feedback loop, each feeding the other. For example, landowners with positive perceptions of wildlife were found to be more willing to learn about birds and bird-friendly forestry [11
]. Feeding garden birds has been found to increase people’s personal wellbeing by viewing themselves as a caretaker [12
]. Some organizations will strategically promote wildlife with appealing attributes to help invoke positive emotions towards conservation more broadly (e.g., panda bears) [13
]. Information about endangered wildlife has also been found to increase the likelihood that the public will support species conservation [14
]. Our ability as humans to manipulate our concern for certain species through learning suggests that wildlife values are often a social construction operating independently of the ecological importance or inherent value of a species. Likewise, definitions of ‘knowledge’ have expanded from being an accumulation of facts to something embedded in sets of social relations [16
]. Independent learners will often follow social cues when seeking out information about conservation [18
]. Choices are also guided by a person’s perception of the issue, and these perceptions tend to be a function of associated structures and spatial parts, underlying senses, and visual expressions [20
]. Learner characteristics, such as profession, rank, and mobility, also shape the lens through which people perceive and understand, which explains why people can have different views about the same problem [21
]. The attitudes that emerge from new understandings are generally defined as the tendency to think, feel, or act positively or negatively toward objects in our environment [23
]. Cognitive connections between related issues are validated or reinforced when a learner compares new information with their own established knowledge and attitudes, as well as the viewpoints of others [25
In many places, it is up to the forest owner to decide how much support (e.g., habitat) they will give to wildlife occurring on their land. However, owners face many of the same challenges as the public when looking to take action, including limited resources and knowledge, and competing priorities [7
]. For example, timber harvesting can be an important habitat management tool, but the knowledge needed to direct certain harvesting activities is often limited and cost-prohibitive [28
]. Many owners also need technical and financial assistance to help manage habitat and offset potential negative impacts of having wildlife on their land (e.g., crop damage) [29
]. Since owners are not required to engage in bird conservation activities specifically, the motivation to take action may emerge for other reasons. Concepts such as sense of place are often used to explain community response to social and ecological changes and recognize the embeddedness of environmental issues. Psychological connections to the land are also understood as a “way of life”, which includes the actions taken on the land (e.g., timber harvesting) and the relationships that emerge from working on the land [30
]. This is why opinions about government involvement in private land issues often adjoin community values about landowner autonomy since the type of government intervention (e.g., regulation, incentives, technical assistance) can compromise or enhance these values [31
]. The interactions between attitudes towards government and attitudes towards wildlife are most apparent in situations of human–wildlife conflict [32
Landowner and public attitudes toward animals are often rooted in the desire to find a balance between affection/sympathy and economic self-interest [33
]. Human evolutionary coexistence with wildlife as a source of food/competition/predation is a likely origin of some attitudes toward animals [35
]. Human values toward animals may also be contingent on the biological and communicative resemblance between animals and humans [36
]. People also tend to be empathetic towards small animals, like birds and squirrels, but this does not always hold true for all small animals, such as bats, snails, and other invertebrates [37
]. Kellert was the first to provide a holistic explanation of human attitudes and actions towards wildlife as a function of the perceived utility of the animal [38
], if it is capable of drawing empathy from humans and our moral obligation to other living things [13
]. In this paper, we examine the cognitive connections (the ways thoughts and feelings are processed to inform behavior) that exist between people’s ideas about bird conservation and private forest lands in order to help direct public education and policy efforts [8
]. We hypothesize that attitudes towards birds are a function of people’s knowledge about birds, as well as their opinions about private forest lands. The cognitive-based parameters measured in this study include knowledge and perceptions about birds, attitudes towards birds, and attitudes towards timber harvesting and government involvement in private lands decisions.
Across all scales, the largest grand means were associated with the perspective of the ethical scientist, the perception that birds will decline in the future and attitudes towards landowner assistance programs (Table 5
). Comparatively, mean values for parameters measuring knowledge were generally lower and variation in mean response to the knowledge scales was generally greater than 1.
A majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with items representing the ethical scientist (94.21%), relational humanist (75.15%) and the abstractor (56.85%; Figure 2
). Highly ranked statements describe humans as having a moral responsibility to reduce pollution, to protect birds, to protect birds so that future generations can enjoy them, the idea that birds are colorful and eye-catching, and the idea that we can learn a lot from bird survival behaviors. Less than half agreed or strongly agreed with negative and dominating perspectives about birds (41.76%).
Attitudes toward harvesting on private lands were mixed, with approximately half of respondents being neutral or positive (Table 6
). There was no significant difference in attitudes towards harvesting for management or production purposes. Items with the highest percent agreement include the opinion that harvesting is good for the economy but that trees should be replanted after harvesting.
In regard to government involvement in private land decisions, over half (63%) of respondents were classified as having positive attitudes towards landowner assistance programs, whereas attitudes towards regulations were more mixed (Figure 3
). Most agreed and strongly agreed with statements that pose that forest owners and the government should work together towards forest conversion. Most either disagreed or were neutral toward the statement that the government has a right to tell private forest owners what to do.
Metrics assessing knowledge classified most respondents as having moderate levels of subjective knowledge (48.78%) and a low level of fact-based knowledge (61.28%; Table 7
). Only 13% of respondents were classified as having a high level of factual knowledge about birds. Across factual statements, respondents selected “I don’t know” an average of 29%. Three percent of respondents disagreed with some factual statements indicating misinformation about birds is infrequent.
Over 76.0% were classified as strongly believing that birds and their habitats will be worse off in 10 years (Figure 4
). Just over half (56.7%) expressed concern for birds at present, but these concerns were more moderate. Most respondents agreed with statements that described common birds as being in good condition, and both young and old forest habitats are generally available. Most were concerned that rare birds would be worse off in the future, followed by mature forests and young forest habitats.
Spearman’s correlation analysis revealed several important correlations between perspectives about birds and other cognitive parameters (Table 8
). Coefficients greater than 0.4 are bolded and indicate a moderate to strong correlation. The relational humanist perspective was more often associated with a higher level of subjective knowledge. The ethical scientist perspective was more often correlated with perceptions of a risk that birds will decline in the future. Attitudes toward landowner assistance programs were associated with the two most dominant perspectives about birds: relational humanist and ethical scientist. The abstractor and negative/dominant perspective, while significant, were not strongly associated with most of the other cognitive parameters. The coefficients describing attitudes towards harvesting and demographic variables were also not strongly associated with any given perspective towards birds.
The ethical scientist perspective was so named because of the specific mix of attitudes including moralistic, aesthetic, ecologistic and scientistic attitudes. This was also a dominant perspective held by almost all respondents. In short, many agree that birds are interesting, important to both ecosystems and people and we have a moral responsibility to protect birds. This perspective about birds was also correlated with the perception that birds will be worse off in 10 years, but not strongly correlated with concerns about the condition of birds today. Likewise, most agreed that birds and habitats today are in good condition and were more strongly concerned about birds in the future. This somewhat incongruent with research that examines the true condition of birds today and which found almost three million birds have been lost over the last 50 years [2
]. Perceptions about birds and ecosystems are often unrelated to the true condition when it comes to species richness or biodiversity [48
]. One of the reasons may be due to local and regional differences in species and distribution of habitats [49
]. The lack of correlation with knowledge parameters suggests that without certain information, current perceptions could underpin misunderstandings about the condition of birds and this can eventually limit a person’s sense of responsibility and their willingness to pay for conservation [50
The information used to inform perceptions of risk may not even be about birds [53
]. It could be personal experiences with declines in environmental quality and associated health impacts that uphold people’s empathy and moral reasoning for protecting birds [54
]. People also tend to use the perceived harm construct (e.g., the magnitude of consequences, probability of effect, temporal immediacy, and concentration of effect) to determine intentions in situations involving ethical issues [55
]. Those with higher risk perceptions were more likely to agree that birds simply because they exist as part of a holistic ecosystem or want to maintain birds for future generations to enjoy [56
]. This is in accord with a growing body of research highlighting much of the value associated with conserving ecosystems is non-use value [57
]. How these risk perceptions were formed was not examined in this study, but may be related to broader perceptions about land-use change and a general interest in the wellbeing of animals overall [36
]. Furthermore, responses may have been affected by how the risk question was framed in this study. Economic studies show that presenting loss frames in ecological messages is often more effective in gaining support for conservation [60
]. Likewise, loss aversion is often considered to be a powerful driver of conservation support [61
]. More research is needed to better understand the factors that shape risk perceptions since moralistic attitudes towards birds seem to serve an important role in motivating bird conservation behaviors.
A relational humanist is primarily concerned with the relationship process with other humans; however, this classification seemed justified considering many respondents felt birds have human-like qualities and enjoy being with birds while recreating in nature. This relationship seems to be dependent on what people think they know about birds rather than having a fact-based understanding of birds, as indicated in the Spearman rank correlation test. Most respondents also reported higher levels of subjective knowledge about birds compared to factual knowledge as well. This is in accord with related studies that attribute a person’s familiarity with bird species to a person’s past experiences with the species [36
]. When a person has enough similar experiences, they tend to reach some generalization about birds, and they tend to label it as knowledge [20
]. While a relational perspective of birds may be fundamentally good for motivating bird conservation behaviors, it may also bias people to support programs that focus only on local birds or birds with behaviors similar to humans (e.g., nesting). For example, people often derive wellbeing by adopting a warden-like role in supporting the wildlife in their backyards [12
]. The relational humanist perspective may fail to support efforts to conserve birds that are hidden from view (e.g., in a remote location) or birds that display behaviors that are revolting to humans (e.g., eating carrion).
The abstractor perspective is intended to correspond to a summative view of birds within a simple cultural narrative (i.e., a symbol). It would be reasonable to assume that birds who serve as cultural symbols would be considered more valuable (e.g., bald eagle) [63
]. However, the weak correlation between the abstractor perspective and knowledge and risk perceptions about birds suggests that valuing birds as symbols may not work to support conservation for birds as a category, but perhaps only for specific species of birds. The abstractor perspective along with the negative/dominant perspective was also weak in explaining attitudes about how private lands should be managed, and there were validation problems with the construct for the negative/dominant perspective. The one item excluded from the negative/dominant construct was intended to represent recreational hunting as a dominionistic attitude. Hunting in developed countries, however, does not necessarily conflict with conservation objectives when hunters are the primary source of funding (e.g., Ducks Unlimited) [64
]. More research is needed to better understand the dichotomy between dominionistic attitudes and conservation across different contexts.
Timber harvesting could have important implications for bird habitats; however, the association found between attitudes toward timber harvesting and all four perspectives about birds was weak. The finding that almost half of the respondents were neutral towards timber harvesting, and indifference was found between harvesting for production or management purposes, also suggests that public opinions about harvesting in Pennsylvania may not be well informed. For example, the large support for replanting after harvesting is incongruent with the practice of natural tree regeneration after harvest which is commonly used by foresters in Pennsylvania. Related studies show that public opinions about harvesting are often not well informed. Many people tend to have intermittent experiences with forests (e.g., recreation) which may not give rise to a better understanding of forest management over extended periods [65
]. People’s preconceptions about silvicultural activities also do not always correspond with visual assessments of the forest condition [66
Support for landowner assistance programs was strongly correlated with both the ethical scientist and relational humanist perspectives. This is consistent with the finding that many respondents support landowner assistance programs over environmental regulations. Pennsylvania, like many states in the US, has a long history of supporting strong private property rights [45
]. Interest in environmental quality often increases when people are given the right to protect, manage, and utilize (e.g., revenue) the land resource [69
]. It may be cultural values about landowner autonomy and resource management helps support bird conservation across multiple dimensions of value. Demonstrating ways in which humans can coexist with birds in private spaces, such as private forest lands, could complement efforts to build in people a more sophisticated perspective of birds and bird conservation. In comparison, attitudes about government regulation were weakly correlated with attitudes towards birds. This weak correlation is notable since environmental regulations are often used to control negative impacts on ecosystems, and there is a strong moral sentiment among most respondents to protect birds from pollution [70
]. Demographic characteristics such as gender and age were not strongly correlated with attitudinal dimensions, which suggests that the framing of bird conservation on private lands can be consistent when working with mixed audiences.
Study limitations include the underrepresentation of non-white members of the public in the survey sample. The four questions assessing factual knowledge were also limited as a robust indicator of a person’s comprehensive knowledge about birds. However, it appears that fostering positive cognitive connections between birds and private forest lands could be an effective strategy for broadening support for bird conservation overall.