If you had to pick the most “instagrammable bird” in the world, you probably wouldn’t go for the frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) -- a nocturnal bird found in Australia and Southeast Asia that is often mistaken for an owl.
But science says otherwise. A study analyzed almost 27,000 photos of birds across Instagram accounts with a combined following of 3.5 million users and found the unassuming frogmouth took the top spot in the ranking.
"It just does not look like any other bird, with its almost anthropomorphic facial features," lead researcher Katja Thommes, a psychologist from the University of Konstanz in Germany, told BBC. "And frogmouths are quite rare. Even in our 20,000-image database, it featured only 65 times.”
Thommes and a group of German researchers were curious to see what makes a great bird photo. They found that despite popular belief, appeal has little to do with conventional notions of beauty. We might “like” a photo over a bird’s color or some specific appealing feature, but oftentimes, the more unusual an animal looks, the more people respond to it -- and the more interest it draws.
To see which bird would likely raise the most interest on Instagram, the researchers used a method called Image Aesthetic Appeal (IAA), which is based on the liking behavior in Instagram. In a nutshell, the method computes a measure of aesthetic appeal based on the number of likes. The score normalizes absolute numbers of likes for time and reach, that is, for how many people have presumably seen an image.
“I thought this method, the I.A.A. score, will be a great tool to investigate bird photographs in terms of aesthetic appeal and inform people which birds are the most photogenic,” Gregor Hayn-Leichsenring, the study’s co-author, told The Guardian. “Or possibly, I just wondered why nobody likes my own bird photographs.”
Instagram is home to numerous bird-focused accounts, and the platform hosts a constant stream of bird photographs with several hundred thousand followers. For the study, the researchers picked nine of the largest bird accounts and collected a total of 27,621 images, calculating IAA scores for each of them and extracting the species of each bird.
The surprising winner in the ranking was the frogmouth, which the researchers see as poetic justice, considering it was once named the world’s “most unfortunate-looking bird.” Well, there is some karma in the world.
These stocky and disheveled birds have piercing yellow eyes and wide, hooked beak, which gives them their name.
“They look perpetually angry,” Tim Snyder, the curator of birds at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, told the New York Times. “The look on their face just looks like they’re always frustrated or angry with you when they’re looking at you, and that’s just the makeup of the feathers and the way their eyes look and everything. It’s kind of funny.”
Other birds high up in the ranking are colorful pigeons with decorative plumage, the emerald turaco (Musophagiformes) with its crown-like head feathers, and the hoopoe also wearing a distinct feather crown and showing off typical high-contrast feathering. Magpies (Corvidae) and broadbills (Myiagra) also ranked high on the Instagram list.
On the low end, the researchers found two types of seabirds, the sandpipes (Scolopacidae) and the oystercatcher (Haematopodidae). Storks (Ciconiiformes) and vultures (Falconiformes) also complete the team of the not-so-appreciated birds. You can read the full list here.
“The ranking of bird families demonstrates that the IAA score is not necessarily tied to the beauty of the depicted bird. Presumably, interestingness, idiosyncrasy, and the situational context all play their part in the aesthetic appeal of bird photos to the human observer,” the researchers wrote.
While the study didn't focus on this, perception matters for conservation purposes. Simply put, more popular animals get the attention, while less popular ones are left behind. By analyzing which animals are more popular, researchers can make sure they also receive the much-needed conservation attention.
The study was published in the journal i-Perception.