A pedestal for “frogmouths”

Director´s view

Miroslav Bobek  |  29. 05. 2021

An analysis of 27,621 bird photos on Instagram has shown that the most aesthetically appealing feathered bird is – the tawny frogmouth.

The tawny frogmouth. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo The tawny frogmouth. Photo: Miroslav Bobek, Prague Zoo

Understandably the unexpected finding of the research, conducted by German researchers Katja Thömmes and Gregor Hayn-Leichsenring, caught the attention of the world’s media; however, even they relativised it to some extent. It certainly cannot be denied that the tawny frogmouth is interesting or even has a considerable bizarreness, but to describe it as the most aesthetically appealing bird is something many of us raise our eyebrows at and underscore the passage in question with a disapproving line. 

You can also see the tawny frogmouth, by far the most famous of the many species of frogmouth, in our zoo, in the aviary at the entrance to Darwin Crater. That is, you'll see it if you look very closely. If it’s sitting on a branch (and actually it doesn’t do much else during the day), you'll hardly be able to tell it from a dry stump. Even the budgies that inhabit the same aviary have a problem or two with this. They often perch on its head under the impression that they are sitting on a branch.

The Czech name for the frogmouth (lelkoun) accentuates its belonging to the somewhat extravagant order of Caprimulgiformes, which are characterized by their inconspicuous colouration, broad head with large eyes and weak, short legs. The English name, frogmouth (translated as žabotlam in Czech), emphasizes its extremely broad beak. If “žabotlam” was not used to describe a certain type of locomotive, I would suggest that we should use the name to refer to frogmouths in Czech too.

The research that has hypothetically elevated the frogmouth – until now considered to be “the unhappiest-looking bird in the world” – onto an aesthetic pedestal, consisted of a fairly simple calculation: besides the number of likes, the time of posting and the size of the account were considered for each photo. The resulting number shows whether a given photo – and consequently a given group of birds – received a higher or lower number of likes than would be expected. So, while the frogmouths were captured in relatively few photos, they did receive a higher-than-expected number of likes.

It is true that even pictures of a frogmouth taken in our zoo are successful on social media. However, I have always been convinced that this is linked to its masterful camouflage and its exceptional appearance, which combines elements that are both surprising and at the same time attractive for humans, such as the large, forward-looking eyes or its wide mouth. That is why I also took the result of Thömmes’ and Hayn-Leichsenring's research as hitting the mark – but on an adjacent target.

Although the German researchers use terms such as “behaviour motivated by aesthetic appeal” or “exploring aesthetic universals”, the number of likes, however, cannot be automatically correlated with aesthetic values. Without doubt, some images of a frogmouth have these values, but the uniqueness and surprising appearance and behaviour of the bird is crucial to their success. Indeed, Thömmes and Hayn-Leichsenring also acknowledge this in their paper when they write that interestingness, eccentricity and situational context seem to play a role in the aesthetic appeal of bird photographs. To this I would probably only add that the same goes not only for bird photographs, but for our interest in animals in general.