In case you were wondering what an immature female Baltimore Oriole looks like...

This morning, my four-year-old daughter spread out her “bird map” (the Peterson FlashGuide to Backyard Birds–a laminated fold-out with illustrations of various birds), gathering characters for a play scenario.  She has lately been fixated on the name “Oriole” (which came about when she misheard someone who said “Ariel,” referring to the Disney Princess) and the name “Oriole” has stuck.  (If you’re new to my blog, I’ve ranted here and elsewhere about Disney Princesses.) It’s been a refrain for her pretend names.  So this morning, she perused her bird map for the Baltimore Oriole.  As she often wants to play that she’s the mama and one of her dolls or stuffed animals is the baby, she looked for pictures of the mama and “girl” Orioles.  She asked which picture was the baby girl.  There are drawings of adult male and female Baltimore Orioles, and an “immature” male.  But no immature female.  Quickly switching species, she asked if there were any other baby girl birds shown.  We looked.  There were none.  There were other youngsters listed as simply “immature” and a couple other “immature” males, but no females.  I told her she could pretend one of them was a girl (maybe it was, after all!) but she did not want to pretend, she wanted to find a real girl bird.

As she became increasingly frustrated, I told her I would look on the computer to find a picture so she could see a young female Oriole.  I did, and found the image you see above.

I assume the lack of immature females depicted on the Peterson FlashGuide has to do with conserving space, and most males birds being more colorful and showy, so the “before” and “after” images of males are more dramatic.  Perhaps male birds are more relevant for serious birdwatchers.  (Following my daughter’s lead, I appreciate and admire birds, in particular certain raptors, but I don’t go with binoculars looking for them.  Nothing against it, it’s just that I am not even a novice birdwatcher, so I’m ignorant about these nuances.)

I do not mean this post to sound humorless: Sexism in a bird map?  Is she nuts?  But ever since today’s pre-breakfast grapple for images of young female birds, I’ve been increasingly troubled by not being able to easily find an avian model for my daughter to cast in her homespun theatrics.  I’ve been reading blogs lately that deal with the incessant sexism young girls are subjected to (notably Reel Girl and Peggy Orenstein’s blog) and while I know it might sound far-fetched to claim that a bird guide can disenfranchise human girls, the thought has stuck with me today.

It’s such a tiny moment in my daughter’s life, and I know she’s getting plenty of other things that will not tear her spirit down.  But that I even thought about this lack makes me sad.  Bird guides aside, we have a long way to go, baby.

7 thoughts on “Sexism in a bird map?

  1. I think this is one of those things that once you are aware of it- you see it everywhere. I feel all-too aware as a mama to two girls. It can be depressing, but I’m glad to know other parents are paying attention too. Thanks for the links to the blogs!

  2. Lydia, i think you’re right about seeing it everywhere. I keep reminding myself that it’s what we as parents do–how we manifest good self esteem, and model the things we want to teach our children–that matters more than whether there’s a female bird on a bird guide, but I wish I could spend my mental energy elsewhere. Those blogs are great. I hope you find them helpful! (If you have not read Cinderella Ate My Daughter, I recommend that you do. And Peggy Orenstein has a fabulous list of kids’ books on her website with strong female characters and generally positive thing to teach us all. I found some real gems on there–you might really like The Root Children. Very sweet, beautiful illustrations, and the message is great.

  3. The omission in those flash guides it is not,i don’t believe, an example of sexism. i’m certain that if, in the bird world, females were the “flashiest”–most colorful/easiest to see for the beginning birder–those flash guides would be filled with illustrations of females and not so many males. In Peterson’s traditional, “official” field guide they do show both male and female.

    i did some very quick internet searches and found lots of examples of illustrations of both genders of the oriole, so i really don’t think there is a sexism thing going on in the birding world.

    Generally speaking, field guides that rely on photographs are very lacking–because of the space issue. If you want to have excellent resources at home for the future, my favorites are:
    Sibley’s (he not only shows both male and female he also shows juveniles–and many other versions of bird plumage at different stages.) It’s great for studying at home but big for taking outside. i’ve always liked the “Golden Guide to Birds of NA”, and National Geographic’s guide. Yes, both show male and female and many juveniles. And all three rely on artist’s illustrations.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations. My daughter is very interested in birds, so I’ll look for those resources.

      I wasn’t really accusing the bird guide editors of being sexist, but just thought it was sad that the idea occurred to me…

  4. i should have acknowledged: yes, the female B. oriole is also “flashy/colorful”…but that is not typical in the birding world, and it is this, i believe, that guided the editorial decisions for those little fold out guides.

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