The Unexpected Gender Gaps in Bird Science

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By Marta Vigano

Who cares about female songbirds?

Female birds are tragically under-regarded and under-studied. In the case of songbirds, bird songs have traditionally been associated with males and considered a rarity in female birds. In fact, women have been singing for millions of years. Conservationists have focused their research on male song, jumping directly to the conclusion that studying males could also provide information about female song.

That changed when Dr. Karan Odom, a postdoctoral researcher at Leiden University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, started a conservation project to track and share female song. Thanks to the Female Bird Song Project, the first steps to filling the void have been taken, with birders submitting tons of their female-focused recordings and field notes.

Only men have a name

Strictly linked to lack of interest and awareness of female birds, birders often have an unconscious bias in terms of what they prefer to observe. This ornithologist, for example, admitted that he hadn’t questioned his undivided interest in male birds for a very long time. Others, even more extreme, go so far as to count a new species only after having seen an adult male. This is reflected in the naming of species, which further normalizes the male-centric character of ornithology.

For example, when it comes to descriptive names of species, they always describe male specimens. The female Blue Grosbeak shows almost no trace of blue, while the female Scarlet Tanager shows no trace of scarlet. And the list goes on, with female ruby-throated hummingbirds not wearing red-necked bandanas or ring-necked pheasants not showing white collars. Either the males and females look alike, so the name is actually descriptive of both sexes, or the name simply describes the males.

Male and female Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea)
Image credits: Ed Schneider/Shutterstock.com (left), Steve Byland/Shutterstock.com (right)

Similarly, and not surprisingly given the male predominance of natural explorations in the 19and century, when birds are named after people, they are usually named after men. This is the case of Audubon’s Shearwater and Audubon’s Oriole paying homage to John James Audubon, and Baird’s Sparrow and Baird’s Sandpiper paying homage to Spencer Baird.

Do we even know what females look like?

Relying on the lack of representation in names, it’s quite common for people to be unaware that women and men don’t necessarily look alike.

When we say peacock, the mind instinctively goes to the luxurious parade of feathers in emerald and sapphire tones. Few would think that what is generally thought to be a peacock is actually just the male peacock. The lady peacock, or peafowl, sports gray and brown feathers and tends to attract far less attention from birdwatchers.

Female and male peacocks. She is not impressed by bird watchers.
Image credits: Anna Kucherova/Shutterstock.com

Ornithologists have no trouble identifying the male of a species, but they have trouble with females. Worse still, female bird identification tips and tricks are often not even listed in field guides, resulting in under-representation of female birds in censuses and scientific studies.

To overcome this bias, a group dubbed the Galbatross Project started Female Bird Day. These scientists, birders, writers and conservationists argue that female birds are so underappreciated and understudied and that birders need to be trained and taught how to identify female birds.

Indeed, a lack of knowledge, interest and data on females completely affects conservation efforts.

Verdict? Like many other parts of society, ornithology presents a bias towards the normalization of the Male. The 8thand March is not a day of celebration, it’s just another day to fight for equality and intersectionality, inside and outside conservation.

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