Friday, June 19, 2009

Dude Looks Like a Lady

Friday, June 19, 2009
Is this a he or a she?

For many bird species, females get the short end of the stick when it comes to bright plumage, singing ability, and, in some cases, offspring rearing duties. Think for a moment about the life of a male ruby-throated hummingbird: He sets up a territory, courts a female (or several), fertilizes as many eggs as he can, then his job is done. He goes and hangs around the feeder, spending the day drinking and fighting, like an unemployed bully. The female whose eggs he fertilized? He can't even remember what she looked like.

No so with the phalaropes. Or, exactly so with phalaropes, but with the sexes reversed.

Consider, if you will, the Wilson's phalarope.

We get to see Wilson's phalaropes each June when we're in North Dakota. This year's wet spring in the Dakotas seemed to provide more nesting and foraging habitat for the phals, so they were almost everywhere. While out doing some casual bird watching with my OWN offspring, Phoebe and Liam, we happened upon the pair of Wilson's phalaropes depicted in my photos, in a flooded cornfield.

After both kids got a good look at the pair, I asked them which one they thought was the male. Both kids chose the more brightly colored of the two, until Phoebe deduced that this was probably a trick question.

Female Wilson's phalarope.

In phalaropes, the sexual dimorphism is flipped from what we see in most other birds. It is the female that is both larger and more colorful in appearance. Males are duller colored to blend in better when incubating eggs on the nest. But as that annoying huckster Billy Mays often says "But wait! There's MORE!"

Females (sometimes several at once) court a male for the right to mate. After Ms. W. Phal is chosen by a Mr. W. Phal, he fertilizes her eggs (she still gets THAT duty) and she lays them in a nest scrape. Then her work is mostly done. She skips away as free as a male hummingbird, to do whatever she wishes: forage, loaf, find other males to court and spark with...

Female (left) and male(right) Wilson's phalaropes.

Meanwhile, back at the nest, Mr. Phal get to incubate the eggs and, once the precocial chicks emerge, he and some of his fellow single dads get the kids together to learn the intricacies of life as a phalarope.

Now I am sure that some of my fellow humans out there think this just ain't right. That this particular gender roll reversal is not only evil, it threatens the very fabric of our society, if not our freedom. I just think it's one of the million of cool things that we as bird watchers are privileged to know, once we take the time to learn them.

This photo shows the size difference between the sexes. She is bigger than he.

By the way, when you were a beginning birder, did you know how to pronounce PHAL-a-rope? I've heard all kinds of versions: fall-AIR-oh-pee, fal-ar-ROPE-ee, PHIL-an-thrope, Sha-SHEV-skee.

For an excellent (but not overly scientific) explanation of the breeding cycle and natural history of the Wilson's phalarope, read Dave Iron's post about this subject on


On June 20, 2009 at 9:22 AM Dave Lewis said...

I've also heard it pronounced "HAY-lookie-THAR"...

On June 22, 2009 at 9:27 AM Rondeau Ric said...


Cool looking blog dude.

On June 26, 2009 at 11:53 AM Calliope said...

Pray tell, how is one example of non-sexist breeding EVIL? That oh-so strong comment might lead me, a loyal reader of your blog until now, to believe that YOU, my good sir, are a MYSOGINIST.

On June 26, 2009 at 12:48 PM Bill of the Birds said...


That was a joke. I thought I was clear about that. If you re-read the passage as I wrote it, I am saying that SOME people might think this gender role reversal is abnormal. And I stretch this statement out to a pretty ludicrous degree.

Sorry if this post offended you. Having re-read it, I'm standing by my words, which were meant to be tongue in cheek (not literally tongue in cheek, that would be gross) Oh...nevermind.

On June 26, 2009 at 12:52 PM Calliope said...

Okay. Good to know. I can be a little over-sensitive to something I think sounds sexist.

On June 26, 2009 at 12:53 PM Calliope said...

P.S. I reread it, and yes, it does sound like you are voicing the opinions of some people who actually are mysoginists. My apologies.