For the Birds Radio Program: Sex Discrimination and Birds

Original Air Date: Feb. 6, 1987

No matter what you believe the roles of male and female should be, there’s a bird that exemplifies it. (3:46)

Duration: 3′40″


Sex Discrimination and Birds

(Recording of Wilson’s Phalarope)

In the past couple of weeks, there’ve been a lot of stories about sex discrimination cases in the news–women suing their employers for not holding a job open during maternity leave, women trying to join the all-male University Club in New York City, men suing to gain admission to an all-female aerobics dance class. People have only been around this planet for about two million years, so I guess it’s understandable that we haven’t quite figured out just how the sexes are supposed to get along yet. Birds have a hundred and sixty-five million years on us– maybe we can learn something from them.

Then again, maybe not. No matter what your beliefs about the proper roles for males and females, there’s probably a bird species that lives exactly the way you think it should–and one that does the exact opposite. Take the hummingbird. The male is pugnacious and rowdy– perhaps the ultimate macho man. Even in the muscle department, a hummingbird’s got Arnold Schwartzenegger beat–over a third of its body weight is in its chest muscles. And the male hummingbird is the ultimate chauvinist, too–spending its days flirting with females and bullying other birds–it’s even been known to attack a bald eagle! Meanwhile, its long suffering mate does all the housekeeping and childrearing. And it’s not as if the attentions he pays her make up for it, either–as soon as they’ve mated a few times, he gets restless and baches it for the rest of the summer.

If you prefer a radically liberated lifestyle, maybe Wilson’s Phalarope is the bird for you. In this shorebird, the female is brightly colored and the male is dull. She’s the one who sets up the territory and defends it, and is the aggressor in mating. Naturally she lays the eggs, but then she lights out for the territory, sticking dad with all the incubating chores and childrearing.

If you prefer more egalitarian relationships, eagles and hawks may be for you. They share nest-building responsibilities, and both defend the territory. Often just the female incubates the eggs, but her mate feeds her the whole time. Then, as soon as the babies hatch, both parents share all the domestic responsibilities equally.

Maybe you prefer a bird with an eighties-style marriage contract. The male robin finds the nesting material which the female uses to build the nest. Singing is strictly the male’s job, incubating the female’s. They share childcare responsibilities, and each has a particular role in maintaining the territory–the male chases away any other males that approach the home base, and the female chases away other females.

Some birds prefer an extended family–jays often get babysitting services from their relatives. And the cowbird has perfected a system of daycare–the female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds and leaves all the baby care to them. The cowbird completely ignores her children until they’re over their adolescent ways and are finally turning into interesting conversationalists.

All in all, the lifestyles of birds are just about as variable as the lifestyles of people–except that you’ll never see any bird, male or female, trying to get into an aerobics dance class.

(Recording of a cowbird)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”