Guest blog by Roisin Kearney, RSPB NI Conservation Officer


For International Women’s Day, we have decided to highlight some of the females of the bird world who buck the usual trends. Female birds don't typically get as much attention as their male counterparts because, in many bird species anyway, the female tends to have a much drabber colour scheme than the males and they do not tend to draw as much attention to themselves by singing. There could be many reasons for this, including making the female less noticeable at the nest in order to protect it from predators.

However, not all birds follow the rule book! One of these is the red-necked phalarope (above), a tiny wader which breeds at a small number of sites in the UK. In this species, the females are more brightly coloured than the males. This confused some early biologists with the famous American ornithologist Audubon mixing up the labels to male and female in his records. This reversal is likely because the males do most of the incubation and care of the chicks. Phalaropes are also polyandrous (this is where one female mates with multiple males, while males mate with only one female) and females will pursue and fight over the males rather than the other way around. This is quite a rare system in the bird world.

Another departure from the norm can be seen in birds of prey. Typically, male birds are larger, or the same size, as female birds. In birds of prey, the reverse is true - with females being much bigger than the males. Female sparrowhawks (pictured, top), for example, can be up to 25% bigger than males and can weigh up to twice as much. One possible reason for this difference is to enable them to hunt different prey - reducing competition between a pair for food resources.


Another female bird that deserves a special mention is the common eider (above). Not only do these birds literally tear the feathers from their breasts to make sure they have a warm and cosy nest for their chicks, but they also don’t eat for the whole incubation period of their eggs, and only drink once every few days. This can mean spending up to 28 days sitting on their nests keeping the eggs warm. The ultimate hardcore bird!

Photo credits: Sparrowhawk by Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com), eider by Hazel Watson.

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