By Keith Michael
Inexplicably to me, most self-identifying birders are men, and there’s a tendency for those men to focus their binoculars and cameras on the flashier male birds. For the 2021 Audubon Photography Awards, a Female Bird Prize was added as a new category to help spread the love to the ladies.
Birds, and certainly humans as well, have always broken, and are consistently breaking, stereotypes. Every aspect of the differences between sexes, visual and otherwise, is once again being rigorously, and ever-controversially, examined and questioned.
But I want to focus on the avian sexual differences we can see. Many of our common West Village birds are what is called monomorphic, which means that the males and the females look exactly the same. American Robins, Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, European Starlings, Gray Catbirds, and Northern Mockingbirds are all visually androgynous. For example, if you see one of these birds while walking your dog, your adrenaline-fueled response can be, “Oh, there’s a Blue Jay!” without the momentary hesitation to ask for its gender pronouns.
On the other side of the street, the womenfolk and menfolk of other neighborhood birds are decidedly different, such as Mallards, House Sparrows, American Kestrels, and Northern Cardinals. Let’s start with Mallard ducks. The drake displays his showy iridescent green head with a white dress collar, while the hen is a phantasmagoria of mottled browns. If you can stop yourself from giggling at the antics of the pompous drakes and watch the hens, you can lose yourself in the feather patterns of their earth-toned camouflage. That’s the point: the hen does most of the sitting on the nest to hatch her eggs, so discretion heightens her desirability. However, both sexes have matching royal blue squares on their wings, pocket squares for the drakes and wrist corsages for the hens, if you’d like, as though they were pinned and going steady. Sit on a bench in Hudson River Park sometime and let them entertain you.
Next up for observation are European House Sparrows. These are the easiest birds to enjoy because they’re both everywhere and plentiful. Once again, the gals are a panoply of browns, though since they build their nests in dark cavities, their evolutionary color strategy might not have been the same as that of ducks. I’ve heard different gendered birders refer to sparrows dismissively as LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) but I find their coloring mesmerizing. The guy Sparrows have snappy black shirt-fronts and, interestingly, like the drake Mallards, also have white dress collars, but they one-up the ducks with skinny black neckties as well. After centuries, these immigrant sparrows still maintain their formal European dress code.
The first challenge of telling the difference between male and female American Kestrels is to see them in the first place! We DO have several pairs of them in the West Village. (I still wish that someone would let me know where they see them nesting. There’s often a pair around Abingdon Square.) Look for Kestrels perched on the cornices of buildings, on the pinnacles of water towers, and on the T-bar supports of intersection traffic lights—waiting for a House Sparrow snack. Once you’ve spotted one of these feisty small falcons, it’s fairly easy to discern gender. Repeating the trend, the females are browner while the males are decked out in colorful orange waistcoats with contrasting blue-gray “sleeves” and color-coordinated chapeaus. Kestrels’ sartorial solidarity is in their two identical black chin strap “moustaches.” (Maybe the ladies do a little cross-dressing to spice things up.)
Finally, our star runway models for the difference between the sexes are Northern Cardinals. If these birds weren’t so common where we live—there’s a pair on nearly every block—they would be worth an intercontinental trip just to catch sight of them. Easily, the male Redbird is the definition of the color red. Red is red. No qualifiers are necessary. These “peacock” males add their flare for a day out about town with the carefully chosen accessories of jet-black face masks, orange conical bills, and flamboyant pompadour crests. But the elegance of their inamoratas should not to be underestimated. Catch a female Cardinal in the right fall light, against the changing foliage colors and a radiant blue sky, and the ethereal subtlety of her ombréd olive to red plumage is a gem to behold.
Earlier I wrote that birds do break stereotypes. In February this year, a bilateral gynandromorph Cardinal was sighted in Pennsylvania. That’s a fancy way of saying that this bird’s right side appeared to be male while the left side appeared to be female, neatly divided right down the center line like a Mardi Gras costume! Google is your friend—look up this rare bird.
There wouldn’t be room in this entire issue of WestView to delve into the funhouse mirror of migrating fall Warblers’ plumages! Just slip on a sweater, go outside, and raise a glass to our classy lady birds.
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