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Why is it that, where there is sexual dimorphism, descriptions of the appearance of birds in WhatBird are almost always of the male? It's as if the male is the real or basic form and the female isn't. Is this common scientific practice? If so, do you know why?

 

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Hi, and welcome to Whatbird!  That's an interesting question.

It isn't so much scientific practice as an historic legacy.  Let's face it, for centuries the study of birds and the natural world was the province of well-to-do white males.  They weren't an enlightened bunch by today's standards.  Being males, they concentrated on males, and usually shot first and studied later.  Ornithologists are paying more attention to females in the last several years.  They're finding some females show unsuspected differences in behavior from males.  Check some back issues of Living Bird for findings, for example.

But there are practical reasons.  In most North American dimorphic species, the males are the flashier ones.  For beginners, they're easier to learn than the drabber females.  It's also often easier to differentiate between the breeding males of related dimorphic species than between the females; see ducks, for example.

Should it be this way?  If we were discussing people, I'd say no.  But the birds don't know which sex is mentioned first in the field guides or shown first on AllAboutBirds, and don't care either. 

As to descriptions here at Whatbird, I find most comments are in response to a posted photo.  If someone posts a dimorphic male, that's what we talk about.  if a photo of a female is offered, we'll describe what we see.

I'm going to try dragging @Tony Leukeringinto this one.  I'd like to get an academic opinion on the subject.

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the males are the flashier ones.

Thank you for your reply! Obviously the males have more interesting plumage (and, often, mating behaviour). I'm afraid this leads to an imbalance in photos too—far more of males than of females, which is unhelpful, as of course you're just as likely to see one as the other. Sometimes there are only photos of males. I'm currently struggling to identify what I'm sure is a very ordinary female hummingbird as I haven't found any photos to match. I wonder if members could be encouraged to take photos of females (and juveniles) too, as a service to others?

As for why it matters, briefly: (1) a description of one sex of a sexually dimorphic species simply isn't a description of that species; (2) salience ≠ importance; (3) observers need descriptions of both sexes if sexually dimorphic. (1) Suppose descriptions were only of the females. There would be howls of protest, rightly so, because neither sex is the template for the species as a whole. If there is sexual dimorphism, each sex should be described separately, not just one. (2) Treating one sex as representative of the species is not helpful for us humans either—it encourages us to think of males as more important, and (3) it doesn't help us identify birds.

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25 minutes ago, Chrysippus said:

I'm currently struggling to identify what I'm sure is a very ordinary female hummingbird as I haven't found any photos to match.

Are you aware we have an identification forum?  Post your photo, along with the date and location of the sighting.  You'll get a response within a couple of hours.

https://forums.whatbird.com/index.php?/forum/2-help-me-identify-a-north-american-bird/

By the way, if you're east of the Mississippi River, you likely have a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

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17 hours ago, Chrysippus said:

Why is it that, where there is sexual dimorphism, descriptions of the appearance of birds in WhatBird are almost always of the male? It's as if the male is the real or basic form and the female isn't. Is this common scientific practice? If so, do you know why?

Actually, from a biological POV, males are the "basic" form in birds. In mammals, the homozygous sex is female. That is, mammals with XX chromosomes (homozygous) are females, while those with XY (heterozygous) are males. Female, then, is the "default" sex. This is reversed in birds, so male is the default sex.

From a plumage-description POV, in sexually-dimorphic species, the "duller" sex often requires more-precise and -expansive description to enable distinguishing the duller sex of similar species. Take Red-winged Blackbird (RWBL). Adult males are easily described. There are only three colors, with black accounting for the color of virtually all of the plumage; the other bits are easily described, and those "other bits" enable distinguishing them from the other "black blackbirds" and from the few other species in other families that are all or mostly black. Females, however, are streaked below, and even cursory traipsing through the ID forum illustrates the problems that beginning or less-experienced birders have with streaked birds. In the RWBL example, ruling out confamilial species is both difficult and simple. Difficult because Tricolored Blackbird females are quite similar, but simple because TRBL is the only other heavily streaked black blackbird species. However, female RWBLs cause such problems in ID because those same beginning and less-experienced birders have not learned to distinguish between streaked blackbirds and sparrows... and between streaked blackbirds and finches. That means that effective written descriptions of such birds require many more words about plumage features, but, more importantly, about bill size and shape, overall structure, leg length, etc. Those latter differentiators -- shape, structure, etc. -- are the very things that the beginning and less-skilled birders have not figured out, so the detailed descriptions are not particularly useful for such birders.

Charlie Spencer is correct about the historical-inertia aspect of descriptions, specifically, and male-biased interest, in general, and that inertia certainly accounts for at least some of the difference in treatments of the sexes.

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Thank you for that explanation. I am certainly in the non-expert category, and find descriptions hard to use. Photographs are another matter. More photos of females would be extremely helpful. I would add that the fact that I have to ask for them, even though females are, as you say, actually harder to identify (but just as plentiful), does confirm a certain bias in the way the subject-matter is presented.

On the XY/XX point: I wasn't talking about ontogeny, but about the appearance of adult birds. The "default" setting I meant would be a description of (or photos of) a male adult.

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15 hours ago, Charlie Spencer said:

Are you aware we have an identification forum?  Post your photo, along with the date and location of the sighting.  You'll get a response within a couple of hours.

https://forums.whatbird.com/index.php?/forum/2-help-me-identify-a-north-american-bird/

By the way, if you're east of the Mississippi River, you likely have a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

No, west. There are 7 common species. None of them seem to fit completely. As soon as I get a decent photo, I'll send it in as you suggest. I only have an iPhone, and as soon as I move, the damn thing flies away. Oh, except when the feeder's low or empty. Then it stands in the air a couple of feet away from me, looking at me, as if to say, 'Come on, get your finger out! I'm hungry!'

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By the way I think I have solved the hummingbird mystery. I think (and I'm so inexpert I may be wrong) one of the photos of black-chinned hummingbirds is wrongly captioned as of an immature female when it is of an immature male, and this is what has misled me. So, beside the resident immature male there is a marauding female. With any luck they will discover true love soon.

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19 hours ago, Chrysippus said:

By the way I think I have solved the hummingbird mystery. I think (and I'm so inexpert I may be wrong) one of the photos of black-chinned hummingbirds is wrongly captioned as of an immature female when it is of an immature male, and this is what has misled me. So, beside the resident immature male there is a marauding female. With any luck they will discover true love soon.

You haven't said what sources you're using for photos.  Try AllAboutBirds.  On each species' ID page, there's a section comparing similar birds.  Here's the link to hummers?

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/browse/taxonomy/Trochilidae

Might I suggest a field guide with illustrations over photos?  One advantage is the illustrations in guides are generic / composite images of a species.  Photos are by nature of specific individual birds and may not include all variations.

 

 

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I am using WhatBird itself. I have an Audubon's field guide, which is useful. My problem, in case you missed it, arose from the fact that an illustration appears to have been mislabelled on the WhatBird site.


Anyway, another, I think slightly older, juvenile male black-chinned hb has arrived and is challenging the current champion. Lots of dog-fights! The female, wisely, has absented herself for a bit.

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