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Men and Women Approach Bird Watching Differently

By Caren Cooper
Men and Women Approach Bird Watching Differently, photo by Miyoko Chu

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As a scientist, I enjoy the ways birds constantly make, or break, our own persistent stereotypes about men and women. Male Scarlet Tanagers are flamboyant; females are olive drab. Male Yellow Warblers sing dainty melodies while females give flat chirps.

I find male and female Homo sapiens just as fascinating—so I studied humans for a recent article in Ecology and Society. My colleague Jennifer Smith, of the University of Birmingham, England, and I studied differences in how men and women approach bird watching in the United States and United Kingdom.

Although people disagree on whether biology or culture causes differences between men and women, there’s no debate that we do differ. Experiments show that across many careers and hobbies, men prefer competition more than women and tend to be more confident—at times ranking their ability higher than it actually is, whereas women tend to show less confidence.

We weren’t just being idly curious—our study species is in trouble. Humans show a global decline in physical activity, an obesity epidemic, and “nature deficit” as we increasingly explore the virtual world over the natural world. If gender trends extend to bird watchers, then we hope that understanding those patterns might inform how we motivate men and women in our sedentary populace to take up a healthy outdoor pursuit.

People enjoy birds in many ways: they feed them, photograph them, garden for them, join citizen-science projects, chase rarities, keep lists, and compete in Big Days, Big Years, and Big Sits. We classified these activities as supportive, collaborative, competitive, or authoritative (see below).

If bird-related recreation involves relationships among gender, competition, and authority, we predicted we’d find fewer females participating toward the authoritative end of the spectrum, and a lower proportion of men at the casual end. To find out, we gathered some basic gender information from membership lists of a dozen organizations in both countries.

The trends were identical in both countries: we indeed found that the more competitive the pursuit, the more males and fewer females participated. “Supportive” activities involved slightly more women than men, and “participatory” activities had up to 70 percent women. Activities with open-ended checklists or lots of travel involved 57–83 percent men. Competitive birding was even more skewed, with 80–99 percent of the participants male. And positions of authority, such as members of regional records committees, had a 72–93 percent male makeup.

Do our results typecast males as achievement hounds and females as appreciation seekers? Not at all—competitive birders also join clubs and go on casual bird walks. And individuals can always buck stereotypes: Phoebe Snetsinger proudly demolished two at once by becoming the most famous lister in the world (8,400 species) and beating cancer for 18 years. She’s just the most prominent example among many women who are committed listers, trip leaders, and ID experts.

The future may hold more surprises. We found that young birders bucked the trend, with equal numbers of boys and girls in all categories. Perhaps the patterns we discovered in adults reflect greater differences between genders in the past. As the next decade passes, perhaps we can answer (and influence) the question: What will the next generation of bird recreationists look like?

Where do you fit in?

Our study categorized bird-related recreation on a spectrum of competitiveness, and then checked where men and women tend to fall along it:

Supportive: Non-competitive. Membership in bird organizations such as the Cornell Lab and British Trust for Ornithology

Participatory: Activities with little competition, such as citizen-science projects

Competitive: Sharing or ranking lists; entering a birding contest

Authoritative: Leading trips, compiling Christmas counts, serving on records committees

Don’t fit? Break the stereotype! Our findings in no way suggest that all men are competitive listers and all women are casual bird watchers—or that one end of the spectrum is better than the other. The most famous lister of all is a woman, and plenty of up-and-coming young birders are female.

Caren Cooper is a research associate in the Bird Population Studies program at the Cornell Lab. Read the full scientific paper at

Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of BirdScope.

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