In trying to capture the perfect image of a bird, photographers often focus on the vibrant, attention-grabbing males. The bright orange belly of a Baltimore oriole, the gleaming crimson feathers of a summer tanager and the royal blue plumage of an indigo bunting are naturally eye-catching.
Comparatively, the more muted yellows and browns of these species’ females can just blend into the background. Among casual observers and avid wildlife photographers alike, female birds “are often overlooked and underappreciated,” writes the National Audubon Society in a statement. For 14 years, the bird conservation nonprofit has held a photography contest showcasing the best in avian images.
But year after year, members of a female-bird-focused group called the Galbatross Project watched as the winning photographs tended to neglect females. “In species that have different feather patterns between females and males, we would usually see the males represented, because often they were the ones that were brighter or bolder,” says Purbita Saha, senior deputy editor at Popular Science and a founding member of the Galbatross Project.
That’s why, three years ago, the so-called Galbatrosses helped create a new category in the Audubon Photography Awards contest: the Female Bird Prize. Judged by members of the Galbatross Project—which includes birders, writers and scientists—alongside a professional photographer, the category calls attention to birds that are frequently ignored. This year, the organization received about 900 submissions for the Female Bird Prize, out of 9,000 entries across all eight contest categories.
By highlighting images of female birds in the contest, Galbatross Project members hope to start a conversation that extends beyond the lens. Even in science, they say, data on birds can ignore females. Sometimes, this bias spills over into the conservation realm, leaving female birds less equipped to survive.
Take, for example, the golden-winged warbler, a species that has faced one of the steepest declines of all songbirds over the last 45 years. In the winters, these birds fly to woodlands in southern Mexico and as far south as Ecuador. There, females tend to settle in lowland forests, while males gather farther up in the mountains.
In a 2019 paper published in Biological Conservation, researchers found that the lower-altitude areas populated by females were twice as likely to be lost to development—between 2000 and 2016, the rate of deforestation was about 4 percent in the male-dominated areas and 8 percent in predominantly female areas. Despite this, the focus areas in conservation plans were “heavily biased” toward regions with mostly male warblers, per the paper.
Males and females of other species, such as the red-winged blackbird, a common denizen of lakes and marshes, also use habitat in different ways. The male blackbirds tend to perch atop cattails, while the females spend more time on the ground, foraging and hopping around on lily pads.
“By understanding what females need from their habitat, you get a better picture of how you can conserve a bird species in its environment,” Saha says. “So, if you’re only focused on [conserving] one part of the habitat that the males are mostly using, you’re not going to be preserving that bird for the future.”
In the 2019 study, researchers also looked at conservation plans for 66 migratory bird species that breed in North America. One-third of these birds had been reported to have different habitat needs between the males and females. But the researchers found that only 8 percent of conservation recommendations took these differences into account.
“The scientific community tends not to view males and females separately as much in studies about conservation,” says Joanna Wu, an ornithologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-founder of the Galbatross Project. “We tend to say, ‘Oh, the ovenbird needs this type of habitat; the snowy plover needs beaches.’ But we tend not to think below the species level.”
So, Wu began to wonder what other information scientists might be missing out on by lumping males and females together.
Building off this question, Wu is studying female bird mortality in her PhD program. And across the board, female birds tend to have a lower survival rate than their male counterparts, she says.
The reason for this trend isn’t completely clear, but based on existing research, she says it could stem from the cost of reproduction—hatching eggs and caring for young can be physically taxing—or genetic differences between female and male birds. Females also move around more as juveniles, which could come with increased survival risks, such as more exposure to predators.
To understand some of these disparities, Galbatross Project members are trying to call more scientific attention to female birds by advocating for mindful data collection. Birders and scientists alike use a platform called eBird to record their observations and see what species others have found. After spending time counting and identifying birds, citizen scientists enter their “checklist” of observed species into the database.
On the eBird desktop website, users can mark whether a bird they observed was male or female. But on the mobile app, such an option doesn’t exist, unless someone manually types a note to accompany their data. Wu and Saha say they would like to see a feature added to the app to allow users to easily mark a bird’s sex.
“My lab and a lot of researchers use these big, citizen-science data sources all the time, and we can’t really scrape sex information from it, because millions of records are collected with just species data,” Wu says. “It’s a huge deficiency in the quality of data that we have to work with.”
Wu says she has contacted eBird staff on multiple occasions, asking for an update to the app that will allow this information to be collected.
“We log all feedback and take community input into consideration when developing new tools and features,” writes Jenna Curtis, an eBird project leader with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in an email. “So even though something may not be possible on the app today, there’s always a chance you’ll see it in a future release.” Right now, the only way birders can add age and sex information to checklists submitted with the app is by retroactively editing their list on eBird’s website.
Even if the app gets an update, however, the data will still have some holes. No observer could discern the sex of every bird—in practice, finding and identifying female birds can be tricky. Adult females can, in certain cases, look very similar to juveniles of either sex. And for some species, male and female plumage is identical to the human eye.
Still, this doesn’t make it impossible to identify a female. Birders just have to go a little deeper, making inferences based on the animal’s context and behavior: Are there two birds in a pair, and could it be safely assumed that one is male and the other is female? Is the bird performing a specifically female behavior for the species, such as incubating eggs or building a nest?
Getting this information is hard. It adds another level of patience and observation to birding, which can already be an exercise in waiting around. But to Saha, taking note of female birds is rewarding.
“It slows my pace of birding down in a way where I’m being a little more holistic,” she says. “It kind of surfaces this point that birds are not just a member of their species—they’re individuals. They have individual variation and personalities and behaviors.”
“And by understanding those, we can really find something special, even in quite common birds,” she adds. “The winner of the Female Bird Prize this year is a Baltimore oriole, which is a bird that people love to see out in the wild, but it still is a pretty common, regular bird, at least here in the Northeast in the spring and summer.”
The Baltimore oriole isn’t the only common bird honored in this year’s contest—a tawny northern cardinal with her bright orange beak, a dusty-cerulean eastern bluebird and a brown wood duck with a white ring around her eye are all included in Audubon magazine’s shortlist of recognized images in the category.
Some of the birds featured in the photos are difficult to identify as female, unless you know what to look for. The female bushtit, for example, is recognizable by its light yellow eyes, whereas the males and juveniles have brown irises. Meanwhile, in some of the species, such as the red-necked phalarope and belted kingfisher, the female bird actually displays more color than the male.
Emphasizing female birds in photography can help bring them wider recognition and appreciation, which is the Galbatross Project’s aim. “I think it really draws people’s attention,” Wu says. “And photographers are just really keen to try their hand at this new skill.”
Saha says she would love to see other bird- and wildlife-oriented photography contests recognize images of female birds as well. With their zoom lenses, practiced patience and eye for detail, photographers are uniquely positioned to put a much-needed spotlight on these overlooked creatures. “We could see so much more when it comes to female birds and their unique features, just by having [photographers] out there, getting those photos and taking video of their behaviors,” she says.