I knew a birder once who boasted of the high standards for his life list: He would not count a new species until he had seen an adult male. If the sexes looked the same, any individual would suffice. But if there were differences, he wouldn’t settle for a mere female; he had to see a male before he’d write it on the list.
Then on an Alaska trip he saw a Common Rosefinch—“common” in Asia but very rare in North America, probably the only one he would ever see. It was a female. What to do?
Few of us go to that extreme, but an unconscious bias against female birds is widespread in birding. When species have descriptive names, they always describe males. The female Scarlet Tanager wears no scarlet; the female Blue Grosbeak shows hardly a hint of blue. Run down any list of descriptive names—Red-winged Blackbird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Cinnamon Teal, Ring-necked Pheasant, Black-throated Green Warbler—and you’ll find the same pattern: Either the sexes look the same, or the name applies to the male.
Birds named for people are usually named for men—an unsurprising reflection of the male-dominated great age of nature exploration in the 1800s. Audubon’s Shearwater and Audubon’s Oriole honor John James Audubon, for example, while Baird’s Sparrow and Baird’s Sandpiper salute his younger protégé Spencer Baird. Perhaps noting the lack of bird names honoring women, Baird later named Lucy’s Warbler for his own daughter, and Grace’s Warbler for the sister of another ornithologist. So these women were recognized only by their first names, and only by association with male biologists. (In a classic of stiff formality, a new species that British expert Reginald Moreau dedicated to his wife Winifred is now known officially as “Mrs. Moreau’s Warbler.”) A few bird names do honor women for what they’ve accomplished—for example, German ornithologist Maria Koepcke had a screech-owl and a hermit hummingbird named for her—but these are exceptions.
When I started birding at the age of six, I was too young and too clueless to be affected by such social nuances. I obsessively wanted to get close looks at male Northern Cardinals, but that was driven by their brilliant red color. It didn’t reflect any disdain for females in general.
As a teen, though, spending every free minute birding, I slipped further into a biased approach. Scanning the ducks on a pond I would identify the brightly patterned males and ignore the drab females, assuming they must represent the same species. Traveling to the Rockies, I was happy to discover my first female Williamson’s Sapsucker (patterned in brown, a far cry from the striking male), but only as a sign that her mate must be nearby. Working to develop my skills as an artist, I painted dozens of bird portraits—all of adult males. That wasn’t even a conscious choice; it just didn’t occur to me that I should paint any other plumage.
But if birding led me further into unconscious sexism, it also helped to lead me out. When I became really interested in the challenges of identifying all birds in the field, I began to appreciate female birds on a whole new level. And when I started to study life histories and behavior, my whole attitude flipped.
In advanced ID, the most obvious thing about a bird is seldom the most important thing to notice. The bold color that catches our eyes—it might be beautiful, but it’s not the place to start if we want to be sure of putting the correct name on that bird. Focusing on color can lead us far astray. As I began to realize that, I looked at birds in a whole new way: trying to filter out flashy color patterns and focusing instead on their shapes, behaviors, and how they interacted with their habitats and with each other.
Looking past the gaudy male ducks on the pond, I found that females of almost every species could be recognized by distinctive shapes. Pursuing spring warblers in the woods, previously I had only looked at the males’ bright patterns—as if there were just one basic warbler outline, filled in with different colors. As I watched female warblers, I could see that all species had slightly different shapes, moved in different ways, foraged in different parts of the trees. With all groups of birds, watching the more subtly marked females helped increase my powers of observation and my understanding of the personality, so to speak, of each kind.
My appreciation grew deeper in the 1990s, when I wrote a book of brief life histories for 900 species. (Lives of North American Birds, published in 1996, is no longer in print, but the updated text now lives in Audubon’s online bird guide.) In researching the behavior of every bird, I was awed by the varied roles played by females.
Yes, males put on elaborate courtship displays, but females pass final judgment on whether those antics are compelling enough. Males get credit for defending the breeding territory, but females are often just as strong in defense. Males might or might not help gather nest materials, but usually the females perform the intricate task of constructing the nest out of those materials. In migratory species, females often travel farther than males, moving to more distant wintering sites.
Even in raising young, there are surprising variations. I knew about female phalaropes being more colorful and more dominant than males, but I was surprised to learn that a female Spotted Sandpiper may have as many as four mates at once, laying a clutch of eggs for each male to incubate. A female Short-billed Dowitcher takes an equal turn at incubation but then splits when the eggs hatch, leaving Dad to tend the youngsters. A female Golden-crowned Kinglet, one of the tiniest songbirds (about one-fifth of an ounce), lays a clutch of 9 eggs in 9 days, adding up to more than her own weight. That’s a tough bird!
So, thanks to the birds themselves, I’ve gotten over my boyhood bias on bird sex. These days I don’t see new species for my life list very often, but when I do, I’m just as thrilled to get a good look at a female—maybe more so. She represents her species just as well as the male could, and probably has more interesting behavior. And besides, there’s a whole world of birds out there, and it just wouldn’t make sense to ignore half of them.
Kenn Kaufman is a world-renowned birder, environmentalist, and author. He is a field editor for Audubon, and his online column, Kenn Kaufman's Notebook, features original artwork and essays by Kaufman.