Anastasia McKeating, Sian Denney and India James
On March 8th, 2021 we celebrate International Women’s Day! Here at the RSPB we think it is important to celebrate women's achievements throughout history, and this year we want to put the spotlight on some of our favourite female birds that are so often overlooked.
Over the last year or so, our Wildlife Enquiries Team have had an increasing number of queries asking why it is usually only the male bird that’s pictured in books and on websites. It is common for male birds to be shown first and for their plumage to be depicted as the “main plumage”, often illustrating the females much smaller next to them. Whilst it is true that the male plumage is often more brightly coloured and eye-catching, possibly being considered more appealing to readers, this issue does seem to stretch wider than just birds – it may be due to an unconscious bias over time within the wildlife world (or wider world).
This is something that we are aware of at the RSPB and are keen to address within our own media. We have made sure to update our bird fact pages wherever we have been notified that the female plumage is not also being shown. We will continue to do so in the future to ensure equal representation.
Female (right) and male (left) black tailed godwits - Gordon Langsbury (rspb-images.com)
We also wanted to do something special this International Women’s Day, so we have highlighted some of our favourite female birds below along with some examples of why they are such incredible animals. My personal favourite girl-power bird fact is all about black-tailed godwits. Did you know that female black-tailed godwits are bigger and heavier than the males, with a noticeably longer beak? You can see in the image above the female is on the right and the male on the left. This helps the sexes to avoid competing for food with each other! Read on to find out about some more incredible female birds and how they excel in the natural world…
Hawks on the Hunt
Whilst in most bird species, male birds are typically larger or of similar size to female birds, female birds of prey are often bigger than the males. This is known as reverse size dimorphism, and one of the more extreme examples of this can be seen in sparrowhawks.
Female sparrowhawk - Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)
Sparrowhawks are specialised hunters and are admired for their skill and beauty. Female and male sparrowhawks are strikingly different in size - female sparrowhawks can weigh more than double and measure up to 25% bigger than the males! While adult males have a wingspan of 58-65cm, female wingspans are 67-80cm (that’s about the width of your average door!).
This difference between the two sexes is thought to be due to different reproductive roles. Females require extra body reserves for successful reproduction, whilst the smaller size of the male allows them to be more agile. Males need to supply the females with food during the start of the breeding period as the females take care of the eggs and young. Females may also help to supply food later in the breeding season, as the young grow older.
Female (left) and male (right) sparrowhawk illustrations - Mike Langman (rspb-images.com)
This size difference also allows them to hunt different prey, reducing competition between a pair for food resources. Females can often be seen predating on larger birds such as blackbirds, starlings and even woodpigeons, whilst males tend to predate on smaller birds, such as chaffinches and great tits. Male and female sparrowhawks tend to hunt in different locations, with the males often hunting in woodland whilst the females roam in more open areas. These powerful and exciting birds epitomise the beauty of partnership and clearly demonstrate that the females can be both successful mothers and formidable hunters.
Raising a brood of chicks requires a considerable amount of time and energy, which is sometimes undertaken entirely by the female. The mallard is an excellent example of this, whereby the female takes full parental care once she lays her clutch (group of eggs), with the male leaving to form small bachelor groups and playing no further role in raising his offspring.
The female continues to incubate her eggs and leaves only to find food and water, in order to ensure the entire clutch hatches successfully. Mallards can produce between 10 and 12 eggs, sometimes even more! Once hatched, the female will lead her ducklings to the nearest body of water, often having to navigate dangerous obstacles along the way - if she has nested in a garden, then she might need to cross busy roads. The female will instinctively know where to find water and that this is where her vulnerable ducklings will be safest.
Mallard duck and duckling - Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
Once they all make it to a pond, stream, river or lake, the female will continue to protect her brood from potential predators – her maternal instincts are incredibly strong and she will defend her ducklings if threatened. Finding food and seeking shelter from harsh weather conditions also become her priority, so she will look for areas that offer her babies with cover whilst they learn from her where best to find nourishing foods.
Even the most inexperienced female intuitively knows how to care for her ducklings and does so diligently until they are ready to fledge. This behaviour demonstrates how female birds play an integral role in raising a brood, overcoming threats and various challenges completely by herself. Their maternal care is truly something to be celebrated this International Women’s Day.
The next time you’re out exploring your local green space and you spot a passing mallard, or maybe even a perching sparrowhawk, we can all take time to stop and appreciate. Is it a male or female?
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