As you take in the beauty of nature around you and start to notice more and more of your feathered friends, you might be wondering, “How do I tell male from female from the different bird varieties that look incredibly similar?” I myself was watching a white-breasted nuthatch the other day and asked this very question. After a brief search on the worldwide web, I had my answer! As far as a white-breasted nuthatch is concerned, males exhibit a stronger rust or terracotta color on their flanks than females. Mystery solved!
But, is there a general rule? Are there any guidelines that can help if you’re tromping through nature without ready access to all of the world’s most pressing questions? Yes, indeed!
A general rule when it comes to distinguishing male and female birds is to remember that most males are dressed to impress! They are typically brighter and have a bolder look in order to attract a suitable mate. Their markings are typically more distinct as well. Females are usually duller and far less showy in order to help camouflage them when it comes time for nesting season. Doesn’t that make perfect sense? An easy example is the well-known cardinal. Males are a brilliant red while females are a dull, brownish color.
A little less extreme as far as the overall difference, but showcasing this concept further, is the downy woodpecker. I recently spotted a female downy for the first time at my feeder. Downy females are missing the iconic red patch on the back of their heads; males have it, and females do not. Other than that, they are very much the same. Even the hairy woodpecker and his mate share the same difference in coloring.
When it comes to the American robin, we continue to see the bright male versus dull female difference. American robins have a much sharper and distinct coloration. Their heads are a deep black which helps to accentuate the white ring around their eyes. Their chests are also a brighter red. Females are quite dull in comparison and blend into their surroundings. Again, it is an effective camouflage and protection measure for nesting season.
Unfortunately, not all bird varieties make the task of distinguishing male versus female based on looks alone so easy for us. Take the infamous blue jay, for instance. Male and female jays are almost identical in appearance however males are slightly larger. But, you may not spot two jays side by side long enough for this tip to help! Something to keep an eye out for, especially during the spring and summer, is to watch their behavior. A male jay will offer food to his female. Also, during nesting season, the jay sitting on the nest is always the female. Male jays are the hunter gatherers and will bring food to the female and their young.
I hope these tips help you to distinguish your backyard visitors more easily. Remember to keep in mind that a male bird is often times the showman and is doing what he can to attract a partner with his colorful plumage and markings or in the case of the blue jay, with his food offerings and service to his young. I encourage you to venture forth and look for more examples in this wonderful, nature-filled world we call home!