Human-bird backyard interactions soar during lockdowns

An international team of researchers have highlighted the role that the COVID-19 pandemic played in connecting people around the world more with our feathered friends while in lockdowns, finding a surge in interest for bird feeding information and providing more insight into global human-birds interactions.

Professor Emeritus Darryl Jones, from Griffith’s Centre for Planetary Health and Food Security, and the research team used Google search index (a valid proxy parameter from Google Trends data) and found a surge of interest in bird feeding in 115 countries after Covid-19 led to lockdowns where people stayed home.

Darryl Jones
Professor Darryl Jones.

Professor Jones, alongside lead author Associate Professor Jackie Doremus from California Polytechnic State University and Dr Liqing Li from Texas A&M University, investigated two interdependent questions:

  • Did the Covid-19 lockdowns increase interest in bird feeding at a global scale?
  • Did the number of bird species in an area relate to interest in bird feeding?

“We know from other work that interest in bird watching and bird feeding increased in response to Covid in the U.S. and some European countries during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Professor Jones said.

“This study tested whether this pattern – increased interest in bird feeding in response to Covid-19 lockdowns — also occurred in other countries, including those in the Southern Hemisphere.

“If so, Covid-19 lockdowns should reveal the extent of interest in wild bird feeding globally, something that is poorly understood.

“Our results confirmed that bird feeding was indeed occurring around the world; large increases in Google search intensity after lockdowns was found in 115 countries that had sufficient search volumes.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to measure people’s interest in bird feeding at a global scale.”

The authors assessed the weekly frequency of search terms like “bird feeder”, “bird food”, and “bird bath” on Google for all countries with sufficient search volumes from January 1, 2019 to May 31, 2020 to see if an increase in bird searches occurred during each country’s specific lockdown period (generally around February-April 2020).

They also accessed nation-level bird species data from BirdLife International to measure species richness.

Prior to lockdowns (for 52 weeks), the team found that the search intensity was, on average, similar to what it was in the week preceding lockdowns.

After about two weeks of lockdowns, however, a dramatic increase in bird feeding search intensity was detected. The result mirrored the interest in these topics found in the US, where bird feeding interest is well-documented.

The extensive practice of supplementary bird feeding around the world as documented in this study has broad implications for avian communities and their migratory patterns.

Professor Jones said that while providing supplementary food for wild birds could be beneficial in terms of survival during periods of resource scarcity and improved health, there was also evidence to suggest that bird feeding may alter ecological communities and potentially have negative effects on biodiversity.

“We already know that where bird feeding is widespread, changes in migration patterns and disease outbreaks can occur,” he said.

“It is imperative that we understand the global extent of bird feeding in order to gain a more comprehensive appreciation of its potential impacts on both avian and human well-being at a continental and global scale.”

Regarding possible reasons for the increased interest in bird feeding during Covid lockdowns, the team suggested it likely related to changes in the relative cost of alternative forms of leisure activities, as well as increases in the benefits from connecting with nature during a stressful time.

“Given the well-established relationship between connecting with nature, human mental health, and a variety of pro-environmental attributes, the implications of finding this global fascination with bird feeding is of great significance for human well-being and biodiversity conservation,” Professor Jones said.

“When access to other nature-based activities was reduced — such as during lockdowns — a simple, cheap activity like bird feeding becomes relatively more attractive.

“Moreover, being forced to stay at home during lockdowns seems to have increased opportunities for people to notice the birds visiting their gardens, something that may have piqued their interest in bird feeding.”

The team suggested future work should further explore bird feeding patterns in parts of the world with limited formal data collection and increase the cultural and biophysical diversity of settings where local bird feeding is studied.

The findings ‘Covid-related surge in global wild bird feeding: Implications for biodiversity and human-nature interaction’ have been published in PLOS ONE.