Female birds too often overlooked for no good reason, traditionally getting less attention in guide books.
By Jim Williams
Are you a sexist birder?
Do you favor male birds, preferring bright masculine colors?
Are your female ID skills weak? Do you slide past female birds because, well, they are harder to identify?
You’re not alone. Birding is rife with sexism. It’s what we’ve been taught by books and science, whether we knew it was happening or not.
Look at Roger Tory Peterson’s earliest field guides (I have a second edition, 28th printing, 62 years old). His warbler illustrations, among others, place male birds foremost, in front of females, the former partially overlapping the latter.
A newer edition (2020) gives each sex its own space. David Sibley in his guides does the same. National Geo guides make female ID clear. Newer books tend that way.
The issue touches more than books, however. In England in 2019, Mya-Rose Craig, an ornithologist and birdwatcher with the birding blog Birdgirl, asked the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) why its posters showed female birds in sizes smaller than their male counterparts.
Was this the result of sexism? she asked. The RSPB promised to review its posters.
National Audubon succinctly describes the problem when posting on its website “favorite female bird photos” as entered in its 2023 photo contest.
“Marvel at the beauty and ingenuity of 14 birds that often get overlooked,” Audubon says, meaning the female of the species. There even was a female bird photo category, prizes for paying attention to the less colorful sex.
Those photos, by the way, include belted kingfishers and red-necked phalaropes, females of which are colorfully marked, the males drab. Plumage is reversed because breeding roles are reversed, males incubating the eggs their mates lay, then tending the chicks.
Identity of kingfisher and phalarope females is male-bird simple. Somehow, that’s cheating.
Then there is the long-held belief that only male songbirds sing. This worn idea was set aside in 1998 in a research paper on female birdsong written by Naomi Langmore, a professor at Australian National University.
Langmore, an evolutionary and behavioral biologist, published an analysis demonstrating that 71% of female songbirds worldwide do indeed sing.
“Male ornaments and displays are often more dramatic,” Langmore said. “As a result, females of the species are studied less, and we know less about them, creating a data gap which masquerades as knowledge.
“We think we know, but actually we just haven’t paid attention. It’s another familiar feeling,” she said.
Author, journalist and feminist Olivia Gentile, writing for medium.com, titled an essay “A Feminist Revolution in Birding.”
Women, tired of being marginalized, even in birding, are rising up against a macho culture, she said. (medium.com/@oliviagentile/a-feminist-revolution-in-birding-95d81f4ab79)
In California, Female Bird Day is celebrated annually by a group of women birders calling themselves the Galbatross Project, subject of a recent article in the New York Times.
Their purpose is to encourage birders to “identify, appreciate, and collect data on what they call the most misunderstood birds in North America,” the Times wrote.
University and museum natural history departments often house collections of bird skins used for study. Male birds dominate.
Robert Zink taught ornithology at the University of Minnesota and now holds a similar position at the University of Nebraska. I asked him why male birds seem first choice for such collections.
“I collect mostly males because: 1) taxonomy (classification of organisms) is usually based on male plumage traits; 2) males are easily attracted by (vocal) playbacks; and 3) it leaves females to tend nest and young,” he answered in an email.
Would taxonomy studies be different if based on females? I asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
Female birds aren’t lesser then. But they are relegated to birding’s fringe.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com.
Source: Are you a sexist birder?