Study Finds Gender Bias in Bird Conservation Plans

Overlooking Habitats Used by Females Adds Risk for Declining Species

After birds pair up and raise chicks, males and females of some bird species spend their winter break apart, and researchers say this behavior is creating gender bias leaving females birds overlooked in conservation strategies.

At the end of the bird’s journey to Central or South America, you might find mostly males in one habitat, and females in another.

Yet conservation strategies have typically overlooked the habitats needed by females.

This puts already-declining species in even more peril, according to a new study in the journal Biological Conservation.

Conservation Plans Show Gender Bias

“Among the small songbird species that have been studied, the general rule seems to be that females occupy lower elevation, shrubbier, drier sites,” says Ruth Bennett, a former researcher at Cornell University.

“Mid-elevation and high-elevation sites that are more humid and have better quality forests are occupied by males.”

Bennett says the male-female split is pretty common.

But the study finds that in conservation plans for 66 declining migratory species, only 3 made any mention of his-and-her-habitats.

Those being plans for Golden-winged Warbler, Bicknell’s Thrush, and Back-capped Vireo.

Bennett concludes that female birds are being overlooked.

Conservation strategies have overlooked the habitats needed by females, such as the Golden-winged Warbler, putting already-declining species in even more peril. Photo credit: Ruth Benne
Conservation strategies have overlooked the habitats needed by females, such as the Golden-winged Warbler, putting already-declining species in even more peril. Photo credit: Ruth Bennett

Overlooking Habitats Used by Females Leads to Population Loss

“When conservation plans don’t explicitly address the habitat requirements of both sexes, there’s no guarantee both sexes will be protected,” says Bennett.

Overlooking habitats females can lead to unforeseen population loss, which is especially critical for species of conservation concern.

“Our research is an important reminder that ‘one size fits all’ conservation does not accommodate the needs of both male and female birds any more than a one-size-fits-all approach would work in meeting the needs of all genders at work and at home,” adds Amanda Rodewald, senior director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This graphic highlights the different locations in Central America where study surveys found male and female Golden-winged Warblers spent the winter months. Figure by Ruth Bennett
This graphic highlights the different locations in Central America where study surveys found male and female Golden-winged Warblers spent the winter months. Figure by Ruth Bennett

READ: WAYS YOU CAN HELP SAVE BIRDS

Analyzing Declining Golden-winged Warblers

Researchers used declining Golden-winged Warblers as their case study.

Findings indicate that the habitats where female birds are spending their winters are being lost more rapidly than those inhabited by males.

Field crews surveyed more than 1,100 locations for the warblers during three wintering seasons in Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Using Global Forest Watch data, researchers can see what percentage of areas with the most birds had been deforested between 2000 and 2016.

Male golden-wings lost 4% of their habitat during that period.

Females lost twice as much, at 8%.

Despite the higher threat faced by females, the study’s findings indicate that habitats for the males got all the conservation attention.

Conservation plans are stronger and more effective when we consider the needs of female birds. Photo credit: Ruth Bennett
Conservation plans are stronger and more effective when we consider the needs of female birds. Photo credit: Ruth Bennett

Counteracting Gender Bias Favoring Males

To counteract the bias in favor of male birds, researchers and conservation planners need to identify and report the sex of birds, model female distributions and include female habitats in their conservation plans.

Female birds are often harder to find with their muted colors, and both sexes are quieter while on their wintering locations.

But making an effort to consider the needs of female birds could pay off in the long run.

“Yes, it requires more investment and care on the survey portion of any conservation effort when you’re trying to acquire information to guide action,” says Rodewald.

But she says that could allow researchers to be much more strategic and save money on the back end.

“Conservation plans are stronger—and more likely to be effective—when they explicitly consider the needs of females,” she adds.

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