The Human Dimensions of Bird Conservation

This article was originially printed in the "The All-Bird Bulletin" North American Bird Conservation Initiative, Spring 2013 issue. This issue highlights exploring the human demensions of bird conservation. Read more of this issue's articles here.

While discussions about the importance of studying the human dimensions of bird conservation are becoming more common, if you do not quite understand this term, you are not alone. This All-Bird Bulletin issue aims to build on a recent NABCI workshop that brought together human dimensions experts and bird conservation leaders to build our shared understanding of the human dimensions of bird conservation. After reading this issue we hope that you will join the workshop participants in better understanding human dimensions and the role research in this field might play in the future of bird conservation. 

Bird watching at Bosque del Apache NWR.


What is human dimensions? Human dimensions, defined broadly, is: “everything in conservation that is not about wildlife and habitats” (adapted from Decker, Riley, & Siemer, 2012). Or, more specifically, human dimensions includes what people think and do related to conservation, an understanding of why, incorporation of that understanding into decision making policies and programs, and evaluation of results. In other words, it includes the same strategic habitat conservation elements that the biological side of conservation includes, from research and planning to design, delivery, and evaluation.

Thereby, human dimensions research is social science research related to natural resources or conservation.

The research pulls from many disciplines, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, communications, education, geography, social marketing, recreation and leisure, political science, and planning. Much of the research in human dimensions is interdisciplinary within the social sciences. Additionally, human dimensions researchers are collaborating on research teams with both social and biological scientists to address conservation challenges.

Montana Master Naturalist students.


Human dimensions research is often thought of as only conducting surveys or polls to acquire necessary data and information about the people or issues of interest. Indeed, human dimensions researchers employ mail, phone, web, and face-to-face surveys. But interviews, observation, document or web review, and focus groups are also commonly used. Mixed methods, incorporating both quantitative and qualitative research, are growing in popularity to allow for both breadth and depth of results. (For more information on these methods, see Decker et al., 2012).

Human dimensions research is used to inform the practical applications of education, outreach, and communications. For example, strategic communications and social marketing use human dimensions research results as the basis for recommendations and strategies. The practical applications also extend to conservation planning (e.g., developing ecologically and socially informed goals), stakeholder engagement, conflict management, monitoring and evaluation, and collaborative conservation, as exemplified in the phases of adaptive resource management.

Why is human dimensions relevant to bird conservation? While the field of human dimensions of natural resources emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it initially focused primarily on recreationists, wildlife conflict, and harvest management by agencies. Broader applications of human dimensions to bird conservation have been more recent.

Within the past few years, the national bird conservation initiatives have released conservation plans that call for more extensive human dimensions research. Partners in Flight’s Saving Our Shared Birds highlights social science research needs and the 2012 North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) Revision (entitled People Conserving Waterfowl and Wetlands) refers to the three–legged stool of conservation as including people, habitat, and birds. To implement the NAWMP revision’s goal of “Growing the number of waterfowl hunters, other conservationists, and citizens who enjoy and actively support waterfowl and wetlands conservation,” the NAWMP Plan Committee and the National Flyway Council are jointly organizing a Human Dimensions Working Group to address the human dimensions research needs in waterfowl and wetlands conservation.

Hunters in western Wyoming.


This growing interest in human dimensions is largely due to the recognition of three important aspects of bird conservation:

1. The solutions to our conservation challenges don’t require changes in bird behavior; they require changes in human behavior. For example, to address habitat loss, it may be our goal to have more land under conservation easement (an action by landowners) or change land use policy (an action by local planning boards).

In order to affect positive changes in human behavior, we must understand the behavior and what causes it, just as we aim to understand bird behavior or population dynamics to inform our conservation design strategies.

2. Conservation isn’t something we do to people; it’s what we do for and with people. This idea is familiar to government agencies that manage land and wildlife for the public and also to non-profit organizations that undertake activities supported by their boards and members. In order to serve our publics or our members, we must understand their interests.

3. Everyday we make numerous conservation decisions based upon our assumptions of what people think and how they behave.

As we understand people better, our assumptions, and thus our decisions, are better informed. Sciencebased decision making for conservation must be informed by both the biological and social sciences.

Human dimensions offers theories, methods, and information to better understand people’s perceptions and behaviors, the driving forces behind them, and how people’s behaviors can benefit or serve as barriers to conservation success. Thus, human dimensions can inform conservation strategies best suited to address the breadth of perceptions and behaviors influencing conservation.

How do we move forward? As we are increasingly realizing, biological science alone will not reverse bird population declines. Given the complex and ever-increasing challenges facing bird conservation, the time is now to gather interdisciplinary teams of social and biological scientists and practitioners, to solve what are inherently interdisciplinary problems involving humans and their interactions with birds and the environment, to secure a bright future for birds and people. For more information, contact Ashley Dayer at aad86@cornell.edu.

Read more articles from this bulletin about human dimensions here.