Skip to content

Research News: ‘Gender Gap’ at our feeders

March 2, 2011

Although males can easily be distinguished from females in many species, in Project FeederWatch we only report the largest total flock size for each species seen at one time. But what could we learn if we counted males and females separately? Do males and females visit our feeders with the same frequency? Do males generally winter farther south than females, or vice versa?

Dr. Erica Dunn, the founder of Project FeederWatch, returned to her FeederWatching roots last winter and reached out to participants across North America to help answer questions about a possible “gender gap” at feeders. During the 2009-2010 season, 520 FeederWatch participants submitted additional information about which sexes of each species were being seen at their feeders, contributing to the “gender gap” survey.

Female (left) and male Northern Cardinals by Robert Williams, Huntley, IL.

Surprisingly, males were reported more frequently than females in all of the 14 species analyzed. Latitudinal trends in the distribution of the sexes were detected in seven species, but the results were mixed. More males were found in the north in some species, whereas males were more common in the south for other species.

As with many inquiries into nature, the “gender gap” study raised more questions than it answered. That’s one reason why science is so intriguing, and why we continue to study our feeder birds. Read the full project summary to learn more from this novel study.

  1. Margaret Malcolm permalink
    March 16, 2011 5:16 pm

    I noticed at my feeder that there were about 2 female Evening Grosbeaks to every 10-15 male.

    • Nick permalink
      March 29, 2011 8:03 am

      This is definitely true for the Northern Cardinal couple that visits our feeder multiple times a day. We always see the male making many visits throughout the day, whereas we might only see the female twice, and even then she doesn’t stick around for very long; just long enough to usually grab a peanut and run!

      • Russell Forte permalink
        March 29, 2011 12:33 pm

        I’ve come to the conclusion that local habitat and habits can make a big diffence with various bird activity. I usually see female Cardinals at the feeders and then start scanning trees to find the bright red ones.
        In my location it’s about a 50/50 tossup.

  2. Russell Forte permalink
    March 29, 2011 6:33 am

    I found the Gender Gap survey very interesting. Most interesting was in my experience of counting birds for Feederwatch I have found the exact opposite conclusions in most cases.

    A factor in male/female counts may be the number of feeders at a given location. I have 4 feeders in my count area, all of a different style, and two suet feeders.

  3. March 29, 2011 6:42 am

    In our Certified Wildlife Habitat, which covers about 1/2 acre full of cattails in the backyard area, I see lots of Red Wing Blackbirds this Spring. They perch on the tallest standing cattails, and on the highest branches of the trees which surround the swamp area. I have been feeding mostly Black sunflower seeds for the past couple of months, and much larger birds have been visiting. I haven’t noticed any of the Blackbirds in actual display mode yet. I am in central PA.

  4. Connie permalink
    March 29, 2011 10:05 am

    We live on a small lake on the southern edge of the St. John Valley in northern Maine. Over the past 24 years here we have seen huge changes in bird populations and species. This year a flock of 30 or so purple finches have been emptying my black oil sunflower seed feeder daily. The majority are females. Go figure. We also have a male cardinal, just one, who is a frequent visitor to the area beneath our feeders. This is the first cardinal we’ve ever seen here, and so far north of its range! We have not seen a female to date. A friend further down range has a pair that visits daily to her yard that backs up to the Aroostook River.

  5. Linda Crum permalink
    March 29, 2011 10:36 am

    With some birds sexing is not easy. Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmouse. How are these birds handled in this study?

    • March 29, 2011 12:19 pm

      Good question! The study only examined species where males and females can be easily distinguished by sight.

  6. Anne Price permalink
    March 29, 2011 12:13 pm

    We have had a female cardinal at our feeders all winter for three years. The first year she took crabapples and squished them on our bedroom window, a behavior that puzzled us. This behavior also occurred the second year. No males came to the feeder until spring.

    This year a female cardinal appeared each day with a group of about 10-12 blue jays. We also now have a male coming regularly. We live in Maine’s central coast.

  7. Rick Hollis permalink
    March 29, 2011 12:14 pm

    Another possible reason is that for Cardinals at least, the bright males are much easier to pick out at dusk [when] the daily Cardinal Convention occurs, then females.

    On another gender related, feeder question, one year I kept very careful notes, recording where the birds fed. In that year, male cardinals were found much more often on the feeders than females [who fed under the feeders. The difference was statistically significant, although I do not have the info where I can find it. After I had my numbers, I asked some friends. They did not think that is what they saw. Asked them to keep track during the next winter, and I did the same. This year there was no difference.

  8. Russell Forte permalink
    March 29, 2011 12:29 pm

    A good species to test your skills on gender is the Dark Eyed Junco, Slate colored. It’s also a good bird to kill stereotyping. Junco’s are ALWAYS ground feeders. Except when they aren’t. I have 4 different style feeders and 2 suet feeders and Juncos feed off all of them without a second thought.
    As to male/female ratio–my eyes aren’t quite good enough or quick enough for that when it comes to Slate Colored Junco’s.

    • Cahow permalink
      April 1, 2011 7:08 pm

      I’m so glad that you mentioned this about Juncoes: that they are ALWAYS ground feeders, except when they’re not! LOL I have battalions of Juncoes marching into my garden each and every morning. From whence they came, I haven’t a clue but it is 100% of the time from the East and they are hopping, not flying, toward the feeders. One sole Juncoe has decided to fly in the face of convention and only eats at the feeder table with the finches and cardinals. At first I thought it was a chickadee but I know better. So, for the past 5 months of my being at the cottage since late November, this one and only one Juncoe has broken the Juncoe Rules. He gets along well with the finches, by the way.

      • Russell Forte permalink
        April 4, 2011 9:08 am

        This and your previous comment are why I’m a firm believer in locale dependent bird activities.
        “My” Juncos started out strictly ground feeders. Over the years they learned to feed anywhere. I think they generally still prfer the ground but then with flocks of 50 to 100 birds, feeders can accomodate only a few.

  9. Claire Hogenkamp permalink
    March 29, 2011 1:49 pm

    I’m located in Peterborough, Ontario. I have a half acre of treed garden and cedar hedges on the banks of the Otonabee River so I am blessed with a wide variety of birds. We are on the migration route for many water species, warblers, hawks etc. The gender question is really very interesting because with so many species it is next to impossible to separate the genders. So I’ll stick to the obvious ones.

    I always have a Cardinal pair overwintering and have observed that they feed in shifts. He guards when she feeds and vice-versa. The clear difference in their feeding habits is at dusk. She feeds at the feeders more often. Whereas he feeds more intermittently throughout the day. But on a daily intake basis, they appear to feed equally and cooperatively.

    Gold finches are also easy to distinguish. They leave in late fall and are back by mid March and are voracious feeders. The genders arrive back at different times and begin their feeder activities sexually segregated. As we move into late spring, they feed together and seem to be equally assertive.

    I only see male Red Wings here at present so I just assumed that they arrive back in their nesting area earlier. I may be quite wrong and I’m not seeing females for another reason.

    As to the ever present House Sparrows, they have different feeding behaviours at different times of the year. The genders feed together in fall and winter, but separately in spring and summer. Males seem to outnumber females about 3 to 1. in spring. Females outnumber males in fall and winter. This may be an illusion because the juvenile and female plumage is indistinguishable in the fall.

    Of course, feeder activity for all species declines during nesting season. The gender question raises more questions and I’ll be looking for gender differences in my future observations.



    • Rose DeNeve permalink
      March 29, 2011 6:12 pm

      Your observations about Red-Wings are spot on. Male Red-Wings do usually arrive about two weeks before the female. They select a nesting site, get things ready, and then sit atop a high spot and sing their little hearts out, hoping their true love will find them.

  10. Patty McKelvey permalink
    March 29, 2011 2:05 pm

    I tend to see the male cardinals at my feeders more often than I see the female cardinal. The birds that I do observe visiting about equally are the house finches. The house finches tend to visit my feeders in pairs (male+female).

  11. Sean permalink
    March 29, 2011 5:08 pm

    I’ve noted more males than females at my feeders, notably with cardinals and downy woodpeckers. My thinking is that the females are more shy (or more careful) in some species, and prefer staying under cover rather than visiting feeders out in the open. We have Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks that regularly prey on feeder birds in winter.

  12. Sarah Packard permalink
    March 29, 2011 5:26 pm

    This is very interesting. I had male cardinals only at mey feeder all winter. Only after they started their spring songs did the females appear.

  13. Kim Q permalink
    March 29, 2011 6:06 pm

    I’ve always noticed male cardinals at the feeder more often, but I’ve also observed the mail flying back to the female and it looks like he feeds her a tidbit.

  14. Rose DeNeve permalink
    March 29, 2011 6:09 pm

    I am always happy to see a female cardinal at my feeder, which is only once or twice a day during breeding season. I always imagine she is finally getting a break after many hours of sitting quietly, hatching and brooding her offspring. For much of the day I can see the male coming to and going from the feeder, collecting seeds to feed her and the fledglings when they hatch. Their courtship ritual, in which he feeds her sunflower seeds one after the other, is always a delight to behold!

  15. March 30, 2011 10:34 pm

    You have to correct the figures for the difference in likelihood that the different sexes will be noticed and identified. The likelihood of seeing and noticing a male of those species where sexual dimorphism is prominent is much greater than that of seeing and noticing a female. In other words, if, say, 100 male cardinals appear at a given locale, you might notice, say, 95 of them, whereas if 100 female cardinals appear at that same locale, you might notice only 85 of them. Statistics do not “lie” but the interpretations have to be made carefully. You have to correct the difference in observed numbers for the error of reduced identification of the females.
    Same-sexed cardinals seem not to be able to stand each other on the same feeding ground, particularly during spring, but at night, I observe them roosting in close proximity to each other in the bushes next to my house.

  16. March 31, 2011 11:32 am

    We have noticed that female Cassin’s finches aggressively kept males off the feeder this winter and seemed to be in greater number on the ground and feeder combined. We definitely had more male evening grosbeaks than females. House finches seemed about even. Pine siskins and chickadees — only they know!

    Will Boyd
    Troy, Idaho

  17. Sean permalink
    March 31, 2011 3:34 pm

    “The likelihood of seeing and noticing a male of those species where sexual dimorphism is prominent is much greater than that of seeing and noticing a female.”

    Maybe in the field, but not at my feeder, which is hanging in the open a few meters from my back porch! =)

  18. Cahow permalink
    April 1, 2011 7:17 pm

    I wish I had been part of this survey as I could have debunked this “fact”, or at least added to it. I have an acre property 1/10th of a mile from Lake Michigan in Berrien County, Michigan. I have 13 bird feeders: suets, apple, peanuts, mixed, thistle, berries, and three types of sunflower. They are positioned along 50 feet of the garden, with a lovely mixed copse filled with evergreen and bare twig shrubs and trees at this time of year. There are 3 heated bird baths for them.

    I must be part of the Matrimony Highway because almost EVERYONE is “hitched” on my little acre! I’ve been birding for over 50 years so anything that can be sexed by the eye, I can do it! I’ve got pairs of Downy’s; pairs of Goldfinches 365 days a year; pairs of Mourning Doves; Juncoes; House Sparrow and House Finches. Oh yes, and 5 paired sets of Cardinals. Their colourings are so different for female and male that it’s a snap to I.D. them. The Cardinals are first at the feeder, by an hour before the other birds. BOTH sexes eat at the table feeder. And at dusk, all ten of them come to dine, almost til dark. The male and female Downy’s eat off each side of the suet blocks and I also have a matched set of Red-Bellied Woodpeckers that show up every couple of days. Can’t sex Blue Jay’s though.:( Now that it’s almost Spring, my Red Wing males have shown up, of course, setting up territories for their ladies. Ooops! I forgot one: I have a mated pair of Carolina wrens, too. This survey bothers me: why should my patch of nothing be so radically different than the survey? Makes me suspect the findings.

  19. kim roy permalink
    April 4, 2011 10:28 pm

    definately see more females at my feeders especially in the finchs purple and gold. I notice that in the woodpecker group both sexes visit regularily at the same time. also both red and white breasted nuthatches come in pairs. I find that chickadees , red breasted and white breasted nuthatches feed at the same time and visit my feeders at different times of the day but together in pairs.

  20. Nancy Glassburn permalink
    June 6, 2011 6:40 pm

    I have not seen any bluejays at my feeders this year. Has anyone else had this situation and does anyone know why?


  21. Robin permalink
    June 7, 2011 2:44 pm

    It’s got to be regional, about your missing Blue Jays. Here, in the S.W. corner of Michigan, I have bushels of Blue Jays, seriously! They come and go and all look alike but there’s got to be at least 30 that are year ’round residents in my back garden. Sorry about your missing jays. 😦

  22. Deborah Collier permalink
    July 16, 2012 9:41 am

    I have a female Cardinal that is feeding an adult female House Finch. The Finch makes a loud chirp and fluffs her feathers and the female Cardinal responds with giving her a seed, they repeat this over and over. I have spotted them at my feeder more than once doing this. I have never seen one specie feed another, is this common?

    • July 16, 2012 10:39 am

      Hi Deborah,

      It sounds like what you actually have is a fledgling Brown-headed Cowbird being raised by a female Cardinal. Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other species. It’s hard to believe, but the host species will raise the cowbird baby as their own! A fledgling Brown-headed Cowbird could easily be confused with a female House Finch. to read more about Brown-headed Cowbird nest parasitism, go here.

      Check out All About Birds to see photos of fledgling Brown-headed Cowbirds to compare them to Female House Finches.

    • Cahow permalink
      July 16, 2012 11:05 am

      Deborah, I believy you 100% because I witnessed with my very own eyes the exact same thing! I was at a client’s garden and both a male and female cardinal were going bonker’s in her back garden. I opened up my client’s garage to get equipment and both cardinals immediately flew INSIDE the garage!!!! It was 104 degrees that day and I was able to finally shoo the couple outside but when I was going to close the garage door, I kept hearing a “peep-peep”. I looked around and finally located on the garage floor, two baby House Finches who looked like they had just fledged! I chased them all around, finally catching them with a net I use to clean the fish pond and brought them into the garden. The cardinal “parents” immediatley flew down to the baby finches and checked them out and began feeding them. I alerted my client to what was going on and told her to be very careful about leaving the garage door open again, in case the babies flew inside, perhaps to escape the heat. All parties involved stayed in her back yard until the House Finches could fly, and now the 4 of them are flying between homes. And YES!, I know exactly what baby cowbirds look like, too. These were 100% House Finch babies; I held them in my hand before releasing them into the garden; I wanted to make sure they weren’t injured in the garage.

      Cool how nature adapts, isn’t it?

      • birder67 permalink
        July 16, 2012 11:43 am

        @Cahow – Nature doesn’t simply “adapt” like that. Although it makes one feel warm and fuzzy to think that a Cardinal pair will come to rescue a baby bird of another species in need, it’s just highly unlikely that it would ever happen.

        Although baby bird noises all sound similar to the average person, species have evolved to to be very fine-tuned in only recognizing the vocalizations of their own species. A pair of cardinals wouldn’t “understand” the calls of a fledgling House Finch, nor do they have any capacity for the human emotions we sometimes naively ascribe to them like “sympathy” and “kindness”. They have no reason to “rescue” chicks that are not their own.

        Evolutionarily, it’s far too risky for a pair of cardinals to aid a fledgling of another species, with no benefit to themselves, as opposed to a fledgling of their own, in which case, the genetic material of those parent cardinals is being passed on to the young, so the survival of the chicks is crucial to maintaining the evolutionary fitness of the parents — the benefit in this case.

        With baby cowbirds, it’s another situation since the cardinals have raised them from eggs, and have no idea that it’s another species, so they they assume they’re still passing on their genetic material by aiding in the survival of the cowbird baby.

        I’m not going to tell you your identification was incorrect, but I think it’s far more likely that you and Deborah both saw cardinals feeding a young cowbird, as PFW already said. Immature cowbirds can appear quite similar to young house finches, so it’s not always an obvious ID.

      • Cahow permalink
        July 16, 2012 3:33 pm

        I respect your opinion, birder67. I’ve also seen too many youtube videos/nature shows of strange animal adoptions, either put together by humans or done on their own. Perhaps the cardinals lost their own brood and mothered an abandoned nest of House Finches near there’s? Or, perhaps a rare House Finch is turning parasitic and laid her eggs with the cardinals? I guess we’ll never know, will we? 😉


  1. Gender Gap At The Bird Feeder? « Your Bird Feeder Blog
  2. Instructify » Blog Archive » Instructifeature — Citizen science: Real-world applications for science students

Comments are closed.