Most of the articles we read about birds, and the books we have too, highlight the splendour and colours of the breeding male of the species. One of the benefits of focusing on the males is the far greater ease with which novice (and experienced) birders can notice or find the birds in question. Most people we know can spot a red-winged blackbird with its flashy red wing epaulets, the ruby-throated hummingbird with its red throat, or even the hooded merganser with its striking white crest. Males of the species are brightly coloured to attract females and hence aid procreation.
The colouration of female birds is usually more subdued to make them less visible to predators while nesting and rearing their young. Today we are putting the spotlight on some of the subtly beautiful females we see at the cottage.
Amongst our favourite and most numerous females is the red-winged blackbird. Nature has selected well the camouflage of the female red-winged blackbird with her overall densely streaked brown colouring. In this picture, taken in July of 2017, she has stepped outside her abode which is within the waterside rushes. Had she been a few inches back we would not have seen her.
When we were new to the cottage, over ten years ago now, we had a general sense of a merganser being water fowl. To our amazement, we learned we have at least two species of merganser at Three Mile Bay, the common merganser and the hooded merganser. (We may have the red-breasted merganser too but we are less certain of that.) Male mergansers are distinctive but many people we know have difficulty keeping the females straight. We love the look of this female hooded merganser with her rusty crest and grey/brown undersides. Her beak is long and thin with a yellow(ish) under-bill.
It is fun to learn field markings that allow us to discern the female from the male of a species in which both sexes are similar. For a while, we did not realize we could tell the female from the male northern flicker, until we learned the female does not have a black line running off the base of the bill backwards towards the back, some sources calling the line a moustache. The female does not have this black line. Moth the male and the female can be seen hopping about the lawn looking for insects. This picture clearly shows the unmarked face of the female. The eastern form of the northern flicker has yellow under-feathers which also show nicely in the under view of the tail.
We were thrilled a few years ago when we first learned about a bird named the common yellowthroat warbler. The male hides behind a black mask, but the female has no need of a mask when its brownish-yellow colouring makes it almost impossible to see as it flits amongst the tree branches.
Another bird which is named for the physical appearance of the male is the ruby-throated hummingbird. We thrill to see them squabbling over the nectar in our feeders or at the deck flower planters. The squabbling may be downright war-like at times. Only the male, however, has a ruby red throat which hides the blood they sometimes draw from each other. While the female has an iridescent green back similar to the male, her throat, breast and belly are clear white.
With some knowledge of the physical traits of the females of the species, we have twice as many birds to see. Enjoy your bird watching, including the females.
What we have described here is based on our own observations and a decade of learning. One book we cannot do without, though, is Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.