Iconic, flagship and rare threatened bird taxa attract disproportionate amounts of public attention, and are often used to enable broader conservation strategies. Yet, little is known about why certain taxa achieve iconic or flagship status. Also unclear is whether the perception of rarity among those acting to conserve threatened birds is sufficient to influence attitudes and behaviour that lead to effective conservation action and, if so, which characteristics of rare birds are important to their conservation. We interviewed 74 threatened bird conservation stakeholders to explore perceptions about iconic, flagship and rare threatened birds and classified their attitudes using a new typology of avifaunal attitudes. There was a relationship between societal interest and conservation effort for threatened species characterised as iconic, flagship and rare. Iconic species tended to arouse interest or emotion in people due to being appealing and readily encountered, thereby attracting conservation interest that can benefit other biodiversity. Flagships tended to have distinguishing physical or cultural characteristics and were used to convey conservation messages about associated biodiversity. Attitudes about rarity mostly related to a taxon’s threatened status and small population size. Rarity was important for threatened bird conservation but not always associated with attitudes and behaviour that lead to effective conservation action. We conclude that conservation action for individual threatened bird taxa is biased and directly influenced by the ways taxa are socially constructed by stakeholders, which is specific to prevailing culture and stakeholder knowledge.