Why Do Women Birdwatch Differently Than Men?

OK so just to clarify…of course women birdwatch: I’m a woman and it’s one of my favorite things to do. And apparently, the illustrious Audubon Society in the USA was founded by two women way back in 1896. But it is still rare to see a woman, on her own, with a pair of binoculars around her neck. Growing up in England, it had always seemed strange to me that I rarely saw any women when I was out birding with my dad. Except if she was trailing behind her husband with a smaller version of his binoculars.

As a teenager I fell in love with birdwatching thanks to my dad dragging me into the wilds for long rambles in the woods. Even though, as a teenager, I would rather have stuck a needle in my arm than go outside on a sunny Saturday morning, my dad had no problem with dragging me along anyway. I could soon tell the difference between a marsh tit and a long-tailed tit and I even got used to my dad saying the word “tit” every five minutes, which wasn’t easy for a 14-year-old. But the older I got, and the more experienced, I started to wonder why we always just met groups of scrawny old guys with beards. They would hail each other, instantly recognizing one of their tribe, and exchange sightings of their avian friends, yet always keeping back the juicy bits. “No sense in telling them where that goshawk is nesting,” my dad would say conspiratorially afterwards. “It’ll only get those twitchers all excited.” There was definitely a competitive element to the whole enterprise that I didn’t buy into. I was happy to sit and watch out for another rare glimpse of a bearded tit, rather than just tick it off my list. I assumed I wasn’t a “proper” birdwatcher, out for the chase, willing to do a 200 km round trip just to see a new bird.

Anyone who’s ever gone rambling in the countryside in Britain is bound to have stumbled on a bunch of “twitchers” at some point. Inevitably, they come in groups of 7+, kitted out with khaki-coloured many-pocketed waistcoats, Leica binoculars of varying sizes and magnification that they call “bins” and probably a tripod or two and a folding stool. But it’s so much harder to find the female variant of this species, and I wanted to find out why the “birding bird” as I like to call her, is still a relatively rare sight.

According to a paper written by Lee, Sunwoo & Mcmahan, Kelli & Scott, David in 2014, “The Gendered Nature of Serious Birdwatching” published in the Human Dimensions of Wildlife journal, there really is a difference between how men and women pursue the hobby of birdwatching. In fact, there is a huge disparity when it comes to leisure time in general. Women simply tend to prioritize their families over their own leisure, meaning that they often don’t build the skills needed for hobbies like fishing, birding or hunting.

Red Cardinal

When I was raising young children I hung a feeder outside the kitchen window and spent many happy hours juggling cooking and childcare with keeping a beady eye on the marsh tit that would visit regularly. Women seem much less focused on the competitive aspect and the list-making that is often considered to be de rigeur among birders. We don’t go out with the sole aim of seeing, say, a bluethroat or a red-breasted flycatcher. Male birders tend to plan which places they want to visit, making sure the habitat is suitable and sightings likely. No sense in looking for a black woodpecker in a field or for a skylark in the forest. Whereas I, and apparently many other women, tend to play catch-as-catch-can. A good day is definitely one crowned by the turquoise flash of a kingfisher, even if it’s only a fleeting moment. But I get just as much of a thrill catching sight of three beavers gamboling in the water on a frosty February morning. Whereas men are concerned with numbers of species and rarity, women are much more likely to enjoy the behavioral aspects of the birds they are watching, regardless of how rare.

When I was raising young children I hung a feeder outside the kitchen window and spent many happy hours juggling cooking and childcare with keeping a beady eye on the marsh tit that would visit regularly. Women seem much less focused on the competitive aspect and the list-making that is often considered to be de rigeur among birders. We don’t go out with the sole aim of seeing, say, a bluethroat or a red-breasted flycatcher. Male birders tend to plan which places they want to visit, making sure the habitat is suitable and sightings likely. No sense in looking for a black woodpecker in a field or for a skylark in the forest. Whereas I, and apparently many other women, tend to play catch-as-catch-can. A good day is definitely one crowned by the turquoise flash of a kingfisher, even if it’s only a fleeting moment. But I get just as much of a thrill catching sight of three beavers gamboling in the water on a frosty February morning. Whereas men are concerned with numbers of species and rarity, women are much more likely to enjoy the behavioral aspects of the birds they are watching, regardless of how rare.

And then there’s the question of tech equipment. While men seem to own a lot of expensive tackle, women will often make do with a pair of small, but adequate field glasses. After all, what woman in her right mind would fork out 1000 quid for a set of top binoculars? Exactly.

Luckily, times are changing, and women today enjoy almost as much leisure time as men, especially once the kids have left home. But when it comes down to it, bird watching, like so many other “gendered” hobbies, is an accurate reflection of society as a whole. So although I do now see the odd female wandering around with a pair of “bins” around her neck, it’s pretty certain you won’t catch her ticking birds off a list and saying: “It was only a tit!”

Photo Header: iStock.com/Rawpixel