UNC Scientist: Female Birds Sing, Too; Help Her Record More Instances
March 14, 2018
When North American ornithologists hear a bird singing, they’re likely to assume it’s a male. But in many species, the females sing too — and a new commentary co-authored by University of Northern Colorado’s Lauryn Benedict argues that a better understanding of these unappreciated female songs could lead to advances in many aspects of bird biology.
Benedict and co-author Karan Odom of Cornell University urge their colleagues to spread the word that female birds sing, to share resources, and to disseminate their findings. You don’t need to be a professional ornithologist in order to help expand knowledge of female song, either — Odom has created a website where any birdwatcher can upload their observations.
“If you hear a bird singing, do not assume it’s a male,” Benedict says. “If you observe a female bird singing, document it by uploading field notes, audio, or video to the collections on our website, femalebirdsong.org. Make sure to indicate how you recognized the bird was female.”
Benedict, associate professor of Biological Sciences, and Odom published the article in the April edition of The Auk: Ornithological Advances, an international journal of ornithology. They discovered the world of female birdsong through their own research.
“I started studying California towhees 17 years ago, and I was fascinated by the duet vocalization given by females and males,” Benedict said. “That led me to start looking for female song in other North American bird species, and I was surprised to learn that it was much more common than I expected. The reports of female song are buried in odd corners of the literature, but when you put them all together, you start to see some interesting patterns.”
Though singing females were likely the norm among the ancestors of today’s songbirds, female song today is understudied and is underrepresented in collections of bird sound recordings. This, say Benedict and Odom, may be result of bias toward the world’s temperate regions — female song is most common among tropical birds. They argue that better documentation of which species female song is present in and more detailed descriptions of female song structure and output could improve understanding of birds’ comparative physiology, neurobiology, behavioral ecology, evolution, and even conservation. Birds of conservation concern are often located and identified by song during surveys, and assumptions that all singing birds are male could mislead wildlife managers about the state of populations.
“Odom and Benedict have written an excellent appeal to document and record more female bird song,” adds Leiden University’s Katharina Riebel, a former collaborator of Odom’s. “They rightly point out that the extent of female bird song has been starkly underestimated, as almost by default we assume that a singing bird must be the male of the species. As a consequence, we might have missed out many aspects and the dynamics of male and female vocal signaling in songbirds — clearly, there is still lots to discover! I am confident that ornithologists in the field can make substantial contributions toward these questions by sharing their observations and recordings, as I very much hope this article will encourage them to do.”