A few hours before the first sun rays of the day pierced the jungle canopy in the eastern foothills of the Central Andes mountains, five Colombian women wielded headlamps and machetes in an ornithological quest for Sooty Ant-Tanagers, White-bibbed Manakins, Magdalena Antbirds, and other forest birds. Guided by bird songs, the expeditionaries embarked on a daily routine of trudging across muddy slopes and rocky terrain, fortified by the knowledge that they were treading the same path as Elizabeth Kerr—an unsung legend of ornithology who had collected hundreds of specimens for the famed American Museum of Natural History bird surveys in Colombia more than a century ago.
Kerr’s name came as a “revelation” to Juliana Soto-Patiño, one of the Colombian ornithologists on that 2020 expedition, as she was preparing to join a larger project to resurvey Colombian birds documented by AMNH ornithologists in the early 1900s.
“It was a surprise for us to hear about a woman in Colombia, at that time, doing fieldwork and collections,” said Soto-Patiño, who is now a PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
The discovery of Kerr became the inspiration for a different kind of expedition that went beyond a modern resurvey of Colombian birdlife—one with the added goal to lift up the voices of Colombian women in ornithology. The expedition launched in December 2020, comprising eight women ornithologists from four Colombian research institutions. In five days, the team documented nearly 90 bird species in the Central Andes foothills where they worked—including 26 species that were a match with Elizabeth Kerr’s collections in 1907. Soto-Patiño and her all-women team of fellow scientists summarized their fieldwork findings, and highlighted Kerr’s influence, in an article published in the journal Ornithological Applications in May 2023.
And they weren’t alone in their mission; in 2019, another all-women team had executed a grueling ornithological expedition in the Amazon region of Brazil to pay homage to yet another unheralded woman—Emilie Snethlage—who had also made pioneering contributions to the scientific knowledge of South American birdlife over 100 years ago.
Both expeditions used field ornithology in the 21st century to shine a spotlight on the contributions of women ornithologists. As the Colombian authors wrote in their Ornithological Applications article, they launched their expedition to “recognize, highlight, and elevate the voices and legacies of women that have been systemically kept invisible.”
“By Ourselves, Using Our Own Voices and Minds”
Originally, Soto-Patiño and her colleagues signed up for an expedition under the Colombia Resurvey Project, an effort by Colombian universities and research institutions to compare 21st-century bird species distributions in five areas to data from the AMNH surveys in the early 20th century, as a way of looking for possible range shifts or extinctions due to habitat loss and climate change. While leafing through the writings of Frank Chapman, the AMNH curator of birds in the early 1900s who organized the old museum surveys, Soto-Patiño discovered a reference to the “Mrs. Kerr Collection”—one of the specimen collections that helped Chapman better understand bird distribution patterns in Colombia. Chapman went on to be regarded as one of the founding figures of modern ornithology, credited with starting the Christmas Bird Count, while “Mrs. Kerr” was relegated to footnotes in Chapman’s published work, even though she made remarkable contributions to his research. (Some encyclopedias even assumed there was a typo, referring to a “Mr. Kerr” instead of Mrs. Kerr.)
As fellow expeditionary Nelsy Niño-Rodríguez of the Humboldt Institute in Colombia put it, they now envisioned an all-women, all-Colombian leg of the resurvey project—conducting fieldwork and research “by ourselves, using our own voices and minds.”
“When we found Kerr, it bonded us a lot,” said Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela, a member of the all-women Colombian expedition who is now an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Because we didn’t have a [woman] role model for so long.”
Not much is known about the biography of Elizabeth Kerr. According to Niño-Rodríguez, there is only one page about Kerr’s life “written by her own hand,” a self-authored article published in Collier’s magazine in 1912. In that piece, Kerr referred to her work “in the jungles of South America, collecting rare tropical birds for museums and private collectors.”
“Often I see no human being for three weeks at a time,” Kerr wrote. “Yet I am not afraid. And I love the jungle.”
Though Kerr wasn’t formally employed at the American Museum of Natural History, she contributed to Chapman’s work as a freelance bird collector. In their Ornithological Applications article, Soto-Patiño and her colleagues wrote that while other women in the early 20th century “wore fancy hats adorned with tropical bird feathers” and collected stuffed birds, Kerr often worked in stifling rainforests alone in a garb of “bloomers, a long shooting jacket, and a rubber hat to protect her from the tropical rains.”
And according to the historical record of letter exchanges between Chapman and Kerr, she also worked under stressful expectations by her employer. Their correspondence “was ridden with demands from Chapman for better collections from Kerr,” Soto-Patiño and her colleagues wrote in Ornithological Applications, “often expecting her solo work to meet the same standards as that of experienced collectors and even team expeditions conducted by the AMNH.”
“Most of the Chapman–Kerr letters discuss the difference in specimen prices and the constant battle between Kerr requesting more funds for her expedition and Chapman demanding better results to wire more money.”
Over her extensive travels to Colombia (first between 1906 and 1907, and then from 1909 to 1912), Kerr is credited with submitting 400 specimens of about 200 bird species to the American Museum of Natural History, including the only specimen of the Sooty Ant-Tanager in the museum at that time.
“Kerr’s explorations … remain one of the few investigations of the avifauna of this remote, inaccessible, and incredibly diverse territory,” Soto-Patiño and her colleagues wrote in Ornithological Applications. “Her specimens include a myriad of species that are difficult to observe … even the elusive and enigmatic Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, which has very few observations in Colombia.”
Retracing Elizabeth Kerr’s Footsteps
Based on the rough descriptions of Kerr’s first collecting period, Soto-Patiño and her colleagues chose to retrace Kerr’s footsteps in the jungles near the town of Fresno in the Tolima department of Colombia. Even before they set foot in the forest, the expeditionaries encountered biases against women workers in the 21st century. While scouting before the trip, Ocampo-Peñuela said she encountered remarks like, “Do you even know how to use a machete?” Many locals were curious and receptive to their mission, she said, but some proclaimed the forest to be too dangerous for young women.
Yet once in the foothills of the Central Andes, the team rose each day at 4 a.m. from the same hacienda (ranch) that Chapman and his colleagues had inhabited more than a century ago. Each day, they would don headlamps and haul their heavy equipment to a cable car—an aerial lift that connected the ranch to the forest. While some team members meticulously set up and checked mist nets to capture birds, others worked at a makeshift field lab to process the collected birds. Exhausted but resolute, they would return to the hacienda around 11 p.m.
As the all-women expedition was covered by news outlets in Colombia, photos and video emerged of the women, including a pregnant Ocampo-Peñuela, working in trying field conditions. The images on TV crushed the false impression that women aren’t suited to grueling ornithological fieldwork, said expedition team member Jessica Díaz-Cárdenas of the Humboldt Institute.
“You mainly see pictures of men… going into super dense forest,” Díaz-Cárdenas said about typical media depictions of scientific fieldwork in Colombia. “[But] it’s not because women are not doing the work.”
Identifying Barriers Along Brazil’s Juruá River
A year earlier in Brazil, another all-women expedition had also retraced the steps of a pioneering woman in ornithology—20th-century German naturalist Emilie Snethlage.
In the late 1800s, Snethlage studied natural history at the University of Berlin, where at the time university rules mandated that female students arrive five minutes before the start of classes, sit behind a folding screen, and stay there until 15 minutes after the end of class. Her persistence took her to study and collect birds along Amazonian tributaries in Brazil in 1905, a pursuit she continued until her death in 1929.
Snethlage was an inspiration to Glaucia Del-Rio, a Brazilian ornithologist and postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who had had her own career experiences of being excluded from fieldwork opportunities deemed too dangerous for women. So in 2016 she started organizing a field expedition to study birds in the Juruá River region—the only major tributary in the Amazon River basin that was unexplored by Snethlage—as a way to complete Snethlage’s legacy and highlight her contributions to Brazilian ornithology. The expedition came to fruition in 2019, just a few months before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and resulted in the first comprehensive inventory of bird species from the Juruá region, with 429 species recorded. Del-Rio and colleagues wrote about their findings in an article published in the Journal of Ornithology—the same German journal that Snethlage had used to publish her findings over a century ago.
Notably, Del-Rio and her colleagues reported the first evidence that the middle Juruá River acts as a barrier for at least four species of antbirds. Antbirds inhabit the shadowy understory of forests and they’re not inclined to fly across the forest breaks cut by wide rivers. Del-Rio and her team found evidence that, over decades, the antbirds on either side of the river develop minor genetic differences, which is why they are considered subspecies.
Perhaps appropriately, the team discovered the differentiation among Black-faced Antbirds by focusing on the females of the species. While the males were essentially identical on both sides of the river, the females had stark differences in coloration on their throats and underparts.
Marky Mutchler, a PhD student at the University of Chicago who joined Del-Rio on the Juruá River expedition, said the discovery was a reminder of the importance of studying female birds.
“A lot of people don’t look at female birds,” Mutchler said, noting that the historical focus on male birds is a reflection of male domination in the field of ornithology. “They’re more so focused on the flashy bright males.”
The Colombian expedition honoring Kerr also yielded important findings about antbirds: concerningly, that they’re disappearing. The team witnessed swaths of what the AMNH ornithologists a hundred years ago had called an “ocean of forest” wholly cleared away. The deforestation is probably why the 21st-century, all-women Colombian expedition no longer encountered many of the antbirds that Kerr had collected in the Central Andes.
While the two expeditions set milestones in the representation of women in field ornithology, the expeditionaries on both research teams agree there still are plenty of biases against women in science that persist in the 21st century. In 2020—the same year that the all-women, all-Colombian expedition launched—an article published in the journal Nature Communications suggested that female protégés reap more benefits when mentored by men. In a response published in 2021 in the journal Zoologia, Del-Rio and coauthors wrote that “if (and it is a big if)” such a suggestion is true, it is not owing to “some inherent female problem,” but to the “existing gender-biased system” that privileges male professionals at the expense of the systemic, institutional inclusion of women scientists.
Ocampo-Peñuela hopes that the images from the Colombian expedition help to foster such inclusion, by inspiring a “country-wide movement” that opens up pathways for conversations on women as mentors, role models, and better-recognized pioneers in academia.
“Being surrounded by really tough women, I could see the future of Colombian ornithology before my eyes,” Ocampo-Peñuela said about her experience with the all-women expedition. “I want girls looking at these pictures to see themselves as expeditionaries, to know they have a role model, and to know that as a woman you can do anything you set yourself up to.”
About the Author
Pareesay Afzal’s work on this story as a student editorial assistant was made possible by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communications Fund, with support from Jay Branegan (Cornell ‘72) and Stefania Pittaluga.
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