Sunday, May 3, 2009

Female Red-winged Blackbird- Why Say "Female"?

It occurred to me as I was Googling "female red-winged blackbird," that it's funny how we indicate the gender of the female of a species but not the male's. It goes without saying when you share a sighting of a Red-winged Blackbird or a Baltimore Oriole that you're talking about the male. Why is that?

Is it because males tend to be more brightly-colored than females and therefore more exciting to observe?

Or is it because statistically birders observe more males than females? In my experience it seems males are more abundant and certainly more noticeable. They're very showy when they're demonstrating to attract mates or intimidate the competition and they also seem to be more active. They're always chasing each other around while the female calmly perches somewhere nearby, away from all the action, and certainly away from the observer's eye. I also think the female is also likely to be out of sight when she's sitting on her nest or foraging for food for her babies.

When you think of these reasons it makes a lot of sense that males are more likely to be observed. But really, the main reason I think males dominate list counts is because they're more thrilling to sight and certainly easier to pick out from their surroundings.

Of course, I'm only talking about observing with your eyes, not identifying by sound. That's a whole other world that I'm light years away from being part of- although I am trying very hard to work on my call/song identification skills. I recognize that a lot of birders make their IDs by sound and could easily ID a male-female exchange, but for the sake of my argument try to ignore that.

Another interesting gender issue is that when you're counting birds (at least for Project FeederWatch) if you see a dimorphic species (where the females and males look markedly different) you cannot count them as two birds unless you see both birds at the same time. Clearly if you see a bright red male cardinal visit your feeder, he flies away, and then an orange-ish female flies up you are looking at two different cardinals but the rules say no.

So females don't get the recognition they deserve in bird IDs but they do get called out when it comes to bird counts. It's a time when ID-ing a female is helpful but still doesn't count. Does anyone else think that's strange? I am sure the scientists have a very good reason for that, but from my naive perspective I think it's a little unfair.

After all that soap-boxing, here are my pictures of the Female Red-winged Blackbird I saw in Stiles and Hart yesterday:


Chris Petrak said...

Very interesting rumination. I find when I am writing about ducks, I usually refer to the "drake" or "hen" & when I am doing a bird program I try to specify male or female with dimorphic species - I suppose in order to educate that there are differences. People easily recognize the RBBR male, but wonder what the drab brown bird is that show up with him - or alone. I don't know that any of this is gender bias (even though the males of homo sapien dominated their study until recently). The female in many species has to remain inconspicuous in order to protect her brood. The males get to show off, and I'd better stop there because there is a quagmire ahead. I just found your blog and enjoy it. Chris

Birdinggirl said...

@Chris- Thanks for participating in the discussion. And for bringing some excellent points to the conversation. You're right, I wasn't thinking of waterfowl-drakes and hens usually are differentiated. And the reason females are usually drab is purely biological since they need to protect their brood. Thanks for articulating what I was having trouble saying and for bringing science to the table. Thanks too for the kind words about my blog and for introducing me to yours- your pictures are very impressive.

Chris Petrak said...

Not to belabor the point, but this evening at dinner, I had a view of one of our feeders which my spouse could not see. I said to her - there is a male Rose-breasted at the feeder, by which I meant - the drop-dead gorgeous one is at the feeder - not the LBJ - take a look.

Birdinggirl said...

Haha- that's awesome Chris! I love that you specified male (i.e. 'worth getting up for a look') Thanks for the follow-up!

Dawn Fine said...

Good discussion.
I tend to refer to the males as well..Partly because I still am a novice and still have a difficult time IDing some of the female birds.
And I suppose to because the males have so much more color..
Good points..

Birdinggirl said...

@Dawn- Thanks for joining the conversation. You're right- the females are the tough ones. I kind of like it when I see a new bird and I finally ID it as the female counterpart of a very well-known brightly-colored male.