Bird Watching & Women

This weekend we happened on a hawk we'd never seen before.

We stood and watched it until it decided we were impacting its hunting, got impatient with the situation, and flew directly overhead looking for a better tree (probably one with fewer people and dogs standing underneath it). It was much larger than the red tails that hunt voles on the ranch across the road. The underside of its wings had a pattern and coloration we hadn't seen before on the neighborhood hawks. It was completely new to us.

So down the proverbial rabbit hole we went. (Thankfully, Cornell Ornithology Lab makes that search incredibly easy.

Turns out, it was a rough-legged hawk, likely a light morph adult female. It also turns out that rough-legged hawks live up on the Arctic Circle, that's their nesting habitat. They come this far south to winter over. (We also learned: They're one of 3 American raptors with feathers to their toes, they have to eat at least 5 voles daily, and they might be able to see vole urine which is visible in UV light. Want other cool facts? They're available here!)

Photo credit: Cornell Ornithology Lab/

Anyway, we were pretty excited about a new raptor in the neighborhood. And only a little disappointed that there wasn't any link to our WWAN work so we had a good reason to tell you about it. Seeing a female bird doesn't qualify as a gender-related story worthy of your attention. And we *definitely* didn't think that there was some sort of bias to be uncovered.

And then this landed in our inbox: Why It Took So Long to Appreciate Female Birds’ Songs.

"Female birds sing. That is one of the revelations of our 2020 study on one of the most abundant, widespread, well-studied bird species in the world: the barn swallow. Despite the well over 1,000 scientific publications about this species, female barn swallow song had never previously been the focus of a research article."

Pause for a moment to take that in. Somehow, in spite of copious research making barn swallows one of the most studied birds in the world, there was no research on the songs of the females of the species?

The authors go on to ask and answer the question that comes naturally to all of us at this point, "Why does it matter that female song has been ignored in this bird that breeds across most of the Northern Hemisphere? It highlights a long-standing bias and helps us think about why that bias persists. Since the beginning of modern birdsong research, the field has focused on male songbirds."

We think that bears repeating:

Since the beginning of modern birdsong research, the field has focused on male songbirds.

Early ornithologists were mostly men. Even now, the field is 3/4 male ornithologists.

Certain biases came (and, apparently, continue to come) with the overwhelming male-ness of the profession. Including, apparently, not studying female birds (and, as you'll see, making assumptions about female birds and their behavior that are not at all based in science).

The Forgotten Female: How a Generation of Women Scientists Changed Our View of Evolution by Kathi Borgmann, the communications coordinator for the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, delves into a lot of the research about not researching female birdsong--and why the gender gap matters. Borgmann quotes Canadian ornithologist Bridget Stutchbury of York University in To­ronto about why it matters to look at the behavior of female birds. “The focus has usually been on what the males have been up to, and that’s why we don’t fully understand what’s going on."

Borgmann writes, "Ruth Bennett is a former Cornell Lab doctoral student who works on conservation strategies for Neotropical migratory songbirds. ... She says that among roughly two-thirds of the migratory birds she studies, males and females use different habitats during the nonbreeding season. ... That means one conservation strat­egy won’t work for both sexes."

The role of diversity in science: a case study of women advancing female birdsong research by Casey D. Haines, Evangeline M. Rose, Karan J. Odom, Kevin E. Omland, explains that "women are making a greater contribution to the emerging field of female birdsong. This

discrepancy demonstrates the importance of diversity in addressing previously understudied areas of science. Increasing diversity in science can lead to new approaches for studying behaviour, ecology and conservation."

In short, when there are more women in the field, there is also more study of the females of the species. The researchers go on to say more (and we're still stunned to learn all of this):

"Research topic bias exists within many areas of scientific research. For example, differences

between female and male animals have often been ignored or understudied (e.g. McCarthy et al., 2012). This bias is clearly demonstrated in studies of elaborate coloration and vocal communication. For example, the evolution of male secondary sexual characteristics such as elaborate male plumage and song have been the focus of major research programmes since Darwin (e.g. Andersson, 1994). However, female ornamentation and female song have been widely ignored until recently (Amundsen, 2000; Langmore, 1998; Odom et al., 2014). The underrepresentation of female song in the early literature does not accurately reflect the prevalence of this trait in nature: recent studies indicate that approximately two-thirds of songbird species have female song."

Why does it matter so much that over the last several decades more female scientists are asking more ques­tions from the female perspective?

To answer that, let's look at bird behavior one more time.

"Male birds, scientists discovered, often sneak off to mate with additional females, spreading their genes far and wide—what ornitholo­gists call extra-pair copulation. ... As for female birds, the prevailing view among ornithologists at the time was that female birds were the victims of extra-pair copulations."

A set of assumptions from the men in the field carried forward for generations upon generations, e.g. female songbirds don't sing, females sit with the nest while the males step out on them. Then the entire field (still largely comprised of men) after researching only the behavior of male birds anthropomorphized all the birds, painted female birds as "victims" of male behavior, and went on to make other assumptions about female birds, equally not based in science. All of which have implications in the real world for birds, for habitat, for predator-prey behavior, etc, etc.

And then female ornithologists came on the scene. Turns out, those assumptions didn't hold. Female researchers attached tracking collars to female birds and found out a whole lot of things. For example:

"Female birds were also seeking additional mating opportunities to get a few more good genes for their offspring, [ornithologist Bridget] Stutchbury concluded. 'In fact, the females may even be orchestrating the system to get more extra-pair copulations,' she said. By coordinating when they breed, a group of female birds can essentially force all of the males to strut their stuff at the same time, making it easier for them to eval­uate multiple males and choose one—or more—of the best."

What other assumptions are baked into ornithology, birding, and bird watching? And how do we encourage more women to go into the field so that we can get more comprehensive, representative, and holistic science?

Welp. Since it turns out (somewhat unsurprisingly, given everything we've just told you) that there are gender imbalances even among bird watchers and birders.

For this study, the researchers wanted to understand "gender patterns in a nature-based activity, observing wild birds, popular in two developed nations, the USA and UK. ... Observing birds encompassed both a recreational hobby, 'bird watching,' that was female biased in the USA, and a competitive sport, 'birding,' that was heavily male biased among adults, but not youth, in both the USA and UK."

Like so many other things, bird watching starts out as something that has relative gender parity and, over time and hierarchy, ends up with a significant gender skew. "Bird watching"--the activity—is clearly more popular than "birding"—the competitive sport. (We're guessing that increasing levels of mansplaining might contribute to the imbalance. A healthy curiosity and embrace of possibility are part of what we like about watching birds. But, we digress.)

The researchers, in this case, were less interested in the why of the inequity (they cite some research about gender differences in competitive nature which we think might be a little too steeped in gender essentialism). They were much more interested in the implications and what happens next of it all.

These researchers want to design programs to connect people to nature so they want to understand the barriers to participation. To the conservationists, there is an aim to understand how habitat is used will lead to different approaches to what habitat to preserve. To our team, it is all about understanding that even the most neutral-seeming activities (bird watching!) may have biases that we need to interrogate, explore, and change.

We get the question a lot: Why does it matter to have more women in [fill in the blank]?

This. This is why.

Because having researchers, politicians, investment bankers, construction workers, nurses, teachers, ornithologists, scientists—the list goes on—who reflect the population means that we're more likely to have more effective and reflective research, policymaking, etc, etc. And we *all* benefit from that.


Here are more resources if you want to follow us down the rabbit hole:

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