This research aims to understand why one of two almost identical subspecies of the Australian yellow chat Ephthianura crocea has received significantly higher levels of local and institutional support than the other despite both having the same conservation status and taxonomic distinctiveness, factors commonly thought to influence conservation effort. Using a qualitative multiple case study approach we explored how a range of social factors, including stakeholder attitudes and institutional, policy and operational aspects, might have affected conservation efforts for the two taxa. Our results suggest that the conservation trajectories of these two subspecies have diverged since their identification as threatened species in 2000 because of differences in the social landscapes within which they persist. For one subspecies local advocacy was kindled initially by the small number of local endemic bird species but developed into a strong emotional engagement, resulting in increased local awareness, government funding, and effectiveness of conservation action. The other subspecies has had to compete for attention with approximately 200 other threatened taxa occurring in its region. No individual advocate has accorded this subspecies a high priority for action, and none of those responsible for its conservation have seen it or acknowledged an emotional attachment to it. Our findings confirm that initiation of conservation effort is strongly tied to the social values of individuals with power to take action, regardless of legislation.