Separating Fact From Fiction.
The field of ornithology has long had its fair share of debates regarding ethics of collections — but I will be putting that argument aside for the purpose of this article.
In truth, the topic of male bias in bird collections may seem like an argument that splits hairs, or puts undue emphasis on a not-so-important differentiation in terms of bias and sexism. However, to the scientists in the field of ornithology and those curators in natural history and science museums, this has been a legitimate concern. Could this be exactly the type of science that can reveal things about the human psyche — the same behaviors contributing to a major problem of inequality?
In their article, The World’s Top Natural History Museums Have a Male Bird Bias, Hannah Waters and Shannon Hackett talk about the fact that there is only a 40% representation in bird species that are curated for collections. This finding was based on the research: Sex biases in bird and mammal natural history collections. This bias is important because underrepresentation of females leads to a lost piece of history, making it more difficult to formulate solutions to ecological problems involving birds.
This study isn’t just something that has shown up on paper, however. Scientists and curators in the field have expressed their practical difficulties in finding female specimens for relevant projects, sometimes with it even becoming a limiting factor because of lack of availability.
I Know What You Are Thinking: It’s Probably Those Bright Colors, Right?
Male birds often have brightly colored feathers that they use to attract females for mating. It would be logical to think that these birds might be easier to see, or they might be more attractive to the human eye, too. Could this have led to more capture of the males than females? What about the nature of the female bird to hide, to protect offspring?
It is true that this and many other reasons could have contributed to this problem. However, it is also true that it doesn’t make it any less of a problem. Years ago, scientists and curators wouldn’t have likely known about the important of female DNA in genomics research. Now, we are beginning to see the true importance of representing female birds in collections. Perhaps if they had known, they might have tried harder to correct this now obvious bias…or would they?
But Wait, There’s More: Bias in Documenting Birdsong.
This is not the only bias that we’ve seen in regards to birds. There is another issue: the focus of birdsong. The documentation of the male’s song surpasses the focus on the female birdsong, although the latest research has revealed a significant importance.
While it is true that some female birds do not sing at all, it was widely believed before that only males were capable of singing…but we know now that this is not true. The birdsong is the language of birds, and it is important to survival and communication with other birds. When we look at instances of this, such as in the parasitic cowbird, there is much to be explored.
As of now, not nearly as much is known about females and their birdsongs. The Female Birdsong Project has started an initiative to change this, creating a platform available for open contributions to document the songs of female birds. The site states that there are 660 species of birds known to have a female song, but only 200 of those have been recorded — and 3,500 more species are in unknown status, meaning it is not even yet known if the females sing. Wow.
Regardless of Reason, Fair Representation Is Important.
Even when it comes to documenting other species in the sciences, we have to ensure that we are being as fair as possible to eliminate bias. Science tells us about the world around us, but it also reveals important facts about us and our humanity, too. Like birds, we may have biological factors that are at play when it comes to dealing with unequal representation. Sometimes to combat systemic bias, we have to intentionally and collectively partake in bias in the opposite direction to level the playing field. This requires not only willingness — but also knowledge.
Our attitudes and beliefs will reflect in our work — even in science — and likewise, how we document science can tell much about what’s going on with us. In the world of science, women are often disenfranchised by their male counterparts when they partake in important, groundbreaking work. This accomplishes nothing, while concurrently revealing the cultural bias and sexism presented in a patriarchal society. Don’t believe me? Ask any female scientist or check the comments section of her work.