by Karan Odom
Most birders know that males of many bird species sing. Less well known is that females of many species sing too – and that their songs can often be equally beautiful and complex. In fact, recent research shows that females sing in about 2/3 of songbird species, and that female songs likely evolved alongside male songs in the early ancestors of modern songbirds. Yet, female songs are greatly underrepresented in recording collections. For researchers to understand how songbirds evolved their diverse songs, we need recordings of female songs from around the world. This is a daunting task. The Female Bird Song Project is asking birders, like yourself, to help observe and record female songs through your eBird checklists. Read more to find out how you can help!
How can you help?
First, be aware that female songbirds sing. Do not assume that a singing bird is male. Females sing in many dimorphic species, where females and males look different (download a full list of species with known female song here). By making sure you see the singer, you may be able to record unexpected instances of female song. It is also important to be aware of when you do not know the sex of the bird. In looking through Macaulay Library recordings (including those coming in via eBird), I am finding that recordists will label recordings of singing birds as male, even in monomorphic species that cannot easily be identified to sex in the field. Singing is often associated with breeding behaviors, such as copulating or nest building, in monomorphic species, and careful observation of these behaviors can provide clues as to which bird is which sex. Here are some tips on recognizing females in dimorphic and monomorphic species. Most important is to know when you can and cannot tell which sex is which.
Second, note how you determined sex. When you upload recordings or enter an observation of female song, always select something for the field requesting sex of the bird. If you can’t tell, select sex: ‘unknown’. It is valuable for researchers using your data know when you could not determine sex. If you do indicate sex, please use the Species Comments field to explain how you knew the bird was female or male. Describe the plumage, behavior, or what was distinctive about the individual that allowed you to determine sex. If you are uploading audio or video recording the bird, your audio announcement in the recording should note which bird is which sex, when each vocalizes, and how you knew the sex. Observations and recordings with comprehensive written and verbal notes are the most valuable to researchers now and into the future.
Third, submit your observations and recordings. All media (photos, audio, and video) uploaded through eBird contribute to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. Submitting your observations and recordings to lasting online collections ensures that they can be found and used by researchers. Learn how to upload media through eBird here. Lastly, and most importantly, enter the exact phrase: “Contributed for the female bird song project: femalebirdsong.org” in your species comments. This will ensure that your observations and recordings of female songs are recognized as part of the Female Bird Song Project. All observations, audio recordings, or videos of female bird songs will help.
To learn more about female bird song, see Lauryn Benedict and Karan Odom’s article in the April issue of Birding Magazine.
Thanks to Karan Odom, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for this article. Please see her website, The Female Bird Song Project website, Facebook page, or twitter account (@femalebirdsong) for more information, as well as these references used in this article:
Odom et al. 2014. Nature Communications: 3379. doi:10.1038/ncomms4379
Webb et al. 2016. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2016.00022