One of my favorite environmental authors, Terry Tempest Williams, once wrote about an experience she had in 1994 when testifying before Congress on behalf of conserving wild lands in Utah. She said: “Congressman Jim Hansen and his colleagues sat on a riser above us, designed to intimidate. As I stood to speak, Hansen began shuffling through his papers, yawning, coughing, anything to show his boredom and displeasure. I was halfway through my testimony when it became clear that the congressman wasn’t even listening. I stopped mid-sentence. ‘Congressman Hansen, I have been a resident of Utah all of my life. Is there anything I can say to you that might in some way alter your perspective on wilderness?
“He looked over the top of his glasses perched at the end of his nose, slowly leaned on his elbows, and said simply, ‘I’m sorry, Ms. Williams, there is something about your voice I cannot hear.’ ”
And that’s something that females often face. Our voices are simply not heard.
Now, that same phenomenon has been found to extend into the bird world. According to a recent article found at Audubon.org, there’s a gender gap in ornithology: experts have focused almost exclusively on how male birds use their voices to communicate, attract mates and fend off competition, with very little energy and time spent investigating the same behaviors in females.
This bias has been ingrained in ornithology since its earliest moments. But one new project is going to try to change all that.
Singing sparrows and caroling cardinals
Historically, birdsong has been considered mostly a male trait. Because female birds are sometimes smaller and less flamboyantly colored than their male counterparts, they were imagined to be quieter, too. But a survey of songbirds published in April 2017 by the American Birding Association showed that female song is present in at least 120 songbird species in the ABA Area.
That number represents close to half of all common oscines (a large suborder of passerine birds—such as crows, finches, larks, orioles and shrikes—characterized by a vocal apparatus highly specialized for singing) in North America north of Mexico, and it’s surely an underestimate because of the widespread assumption that only males sing. Some of the more well-known female divas include northern cardinals and house wrens, but blackbird, black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco, grosbeak, kinglet, oriole, song sparrow, tanager and yellow warbler females also sing.
It’s in the tropical and subtropical regions, however, where female birdsong is most common, with males and females using songs in similar ways. Both sexes of Australian magpie-larks, for instance, sing to defend territories, often combining their songs into a duet. Female stripe-headed sparrows of Central America typically lead the charge against intruders and sing more aggressively than males. In pairs of Venezuelan troupials, females also take a dominant role, producing most of the songs sung during the day.
The diversity of female song is also astounding. In some North American species, females sing frequently; while in others, only occasionally. Female tunes may sound like male songs, or they can be entirely distinct. They might be a little less complex or not as loud as male versions; or they may be quite the opposite: some female owls, for example, have longer, more emphatic calls or use more notes.
Moreover, researchers now have strong evidence that song likely existed in the female ancestors of all songbirds. This means that, among species in which males sing but females do not, female song is absent because females in some lineages stopped singing, not because only male ancestors started singing.
Biases banished and serenades shared
Now that we know that so many lady birds do sing, we have to wonder how many female troubadours are going unrecognized. How often has female birdsong been mistakenly recorded and labeled as male? Instead of assuming that a singing bird is a male, we need to question the bird’s gender.
You can help by using your smartphone or other recording device to document female birdsong. In general, if you’re not sure of the sex of a singing bird, consider it an “unknown.” If you have a strong hunch that it is one sex or the other, make a note of how you determined that, such as appearance (color, pattern, shape or size) or behavior. If you saw a pair of birds feeding chicks in a nest and both were singing, it’s reasonable to conclude that one of those two was a female. Similarly, if you watched an incubating bird sing from the nest, and you were confident that only females of that species incubate, you could infer that you were hearing female song.
Then, upload your observations (field notes, with or without digital media) to a project-sponsored, online database, such as eBird. Click “Add details” next to the species to describe your sighting. Include how you sexed the singer and “female birdsong” somewhere in your notes. Other online databases for submitting observations are iNaturalist and Observation.org.
The importance of female birdsong has been ignored for far too long. In fact, in her 1943 classic monograph titled Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow, pioneering ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice named more than 50 species with female song and suggested that the ancestor of all modern bird species likely had both singing males and singing females—a hypothesis that took 75 years to confirm.
Female birds sing in every country on Earth, and they often do so in important and meaningful ways. Let’s help give the ladies their voices.
Oh, and that Terry Tempest Williams quote at the beginning of this piece? It comes from her book titled When Women Were Birds.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,