CREDIT: Ari Kaufman
Dec 14

A Field Guide to Female Birds

Kristina Necovska – Membership Associate


Most nature enthusiasts just love birds, but the nuances of identifying similar species, let alone genders, aren’t always easy — even for the seasoned birder. And so, being a majority female workplace here at GSWA we think it’s only fair that we shine the spotlight on our counterparts in the avian world. In general, bird species globally display some degree of sexual dimorphism – a physical difference between the sexes. Here in the Northeast, the differences can be quite subtle. Don’t worry, that’s where we’ve got you covered:


American Goldfinch (“Female American Goldfinch” by Jeff B // CC BY 2.0)

How well do you know New Jersey’s state bird? The goldfinch is an appropriate state bird for our highly developed state – luckily for them, goldfinches have largely benefited by human activity. They are year-round residents and both sexes display a duller winter plumage during the cold months. They are extremely social, so they are likely to be seen in small flocks wherever thistle plants are abundant and people with many of these plants in their yards are likely to attract goldfinches year-round. How can you tell a female apart from a male? The female is an olive colored bird with a ‘yellow blush’ around her face.





Red-bellied woodpecker

The red-bellied woodpecker is among the most misidentified woodpeckers by novice birders and bird enthusiasts. Their most striking feature, the red head stripe that both males and female wear, leads people to confuse them with the red-headed woodpecker. Few people ever see the red belly for which they are named. The male may be brightly colored, but the female is arguably more beautiful. Best appreciated up-close, her gray forehead feathers contrast nicely with her vermillion head-stripe. These birds make no qualms about pushing other birds away while they feed, but are nowhere near as rude as blue jays. Paired individuals do keep separate territories, so you are likely to have either the male or female visit your feeder almost exclusively.




Northern Cardinal:

The female redbird may come in many shades from olive to orange, though she’s got that familiar red crest and bright orange bill that is characteristic of these birds. Did you notice her red eyebrows? These birds know how to use a red accent. What is interesting to note is that female cardinals are known to hiss. While males are known to be good fathers (they can be seen cutting up big seeds for their fledglings), the females won’t hesitate to let you know you’re not welcome near her children or her food. Ironically, this good parenting leads cardinals to be common hosts for cowbird parasitism.



Dark-Eyed Junco – Photo credit (Bob Vuxinic)

Dark-eyed juncos are striking little sparrows. They are very social, so you’ll get a good mix of males and females coming to your feeder. Once they learn that you’ve got snacks all ready for them after their long migration south from Canada and New England, they will return to visit you year after year. The plumage of a female junco is not as highly contrasted as the male’s, though they are still a pretty mix of sandy browns and greys. Juncos are also known to hybridize with the white-throated sparrow, with whom they also form mixed flocks. The hybrid offspring often end up looking like a female junco though they will have more visible brown and tan stripes on their backs and wings. All birds have a pink bill, and are quite small.


White-breasted nuthatch (“white-breasted nuthatch”  Matt MacGillivray // CC BY 2.0)

Though it is elusive, the white-breasted nuthatch is one of the most adorable birds that visits our feeders here in the northeast. Birders call them the “upside down” bird. Identifying a nuthatch is just a matter of witnessing the unique way she moves down a tree headfirst. Males and females are nearly identical, and identifying a female is difficult without the aid of a good pair of binoculars. The female, much like a red-bellied woodpecker, has a grey forehead whereas the male has a continuous black stripe from his bill to the back of his neck.  The good news? These birds, much like chickadees, can become very trusting of people who feed them regularly. Both sexes utter an unmistakable endearing “heh heh” contact call and mated pairs will occupy the same territory all year round. So, if you’ve spotted one be on the lookout for another up in the trees.

Northern Flicker ( “Northern Flicker” by Brendan Lally // CC BY 2.0)

The northern flicker occupies hardwood forests of the northeast, but they are also commonly found in suburban areas as well. Unlike other woodpeckers, flickers prefer to forage on the ground so if you see a large crow-sized woodpecker sitting near the base of a tree, odds are good that it’s a flicker. Usually, people see them as they fly up and away, mooning us with their characteristic white rump. Both sexes are similar, so you’ll need binoculars to identify this one.  Males have a characteristic “handle-bar” mustache, which the female lacks. Easy-peasy, right?

We hope that this little guide encourages you to take a closer look at our familiar woodland birds and note their distinct behaviors that make bird-watching such a fascinating and rewarding hobby.