Monday, January 10, 2011

Little Brown Jobs

In response to this request: “2000 words on sexism in avian communities in the Northern Hemisphere” which was some kind of writing test meted out by a friend:

Little Brown Jobs

You may be an amateur ornithologist. I’m not. But if you’re a reader (or your teachers at school forced you to be) you’ll have a little knowledge of birds. More than you realized. Whether you are hanging upside down on the bottom-most curve of the globe, or teetering at the top with the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll be familiar with certain species of bird even if you have never seen them.

In nursery rhymes and children’s stories there are robins, blackbirds and thrushes. Wagtails, gulls and even chickens and geese flock about those pages, whose ragged library spines flutter with feathered words and bright illustrations.

You’ve heard about birdsongs and can tell the difference between raptors and waterfowl. In fact, many of you even eat eggs every day for breakfast without considering the ancient sacrifice which has made that possible.

For most of us, however, ornithology stops at the endless pigeons which mill around town centres, or the flighty, nervous dips of little ones into our gardens. We may see a duck or two on a longer drive, and, occasionally, something which could (maaaaybe) be an eagle, or a hawk (or a crow) planing across a blue sky in silhouette.

That’s normal. Most of us take for granted the presence of a certain amount of wildlife around us, and could care less about their migratory patterns or the origins of their popular or Latin names. Those who take the interest any deeper seem to be doomed to hover on the fringes of society, unable to share their learning with the ignorant.

This isn’t about that. What I hope it will do, though, is help you to take a quick peek into the way birds can, in a way Hitchcock understood, be sinister.

In birder-speak, you get something called “little brown jobs”, or LBJs. Those are those hard-to-spot, yet common creatures that flit about gardens, hedgerows and meadows with predictable frequency. They don’t have amazing tail feathers or striking plumage, they just look like, well, birds. Brown ones. It takes great skill to be able to identify one species from the other, and most of us aren’t up to learning it. Who really has the time to study behavioral patterns or different birdsong pitches? Anyway, the fact is, LBJs are everywhere. Agreed?

Now. Think of the birds you can identify. Amongst the species you can pick out of a crowd, you’ll recognize certain features- songs, patches of colour, and nesting habits. Here’s the point: Most of the birds you can identify- you’re thinking of the male of the species. A female blackbird, terdus merula, is not black. She also lacks the striking yellow bill of the male. She’s brown. You know I’m right- the female of the species is not necessarily more deadly, but certainly more dowdy, than the male. Take a chicken, for example. The cockerel is assigned gubernatorial powers in the barnyard- he struts and lifts his chin to less significant fellows, his head crowned with a crimson mass that would be ridiculous on any lesser bird. The female chicken- well- she just darts around pointlessly, stabbing at seeds or worms, until finally she disappears to lay eggs or into the pot.

Let’s face it. Brown is not the new black. Brown is just, brown. Whether it’s dark, rufous, rusty, ruddy, beige, fawn, sandy or rich chestnut- it’s brown. It has a brief time of popularity on the catwalks of Europe during the Autumn collections, but then it’s swallowed up by reds, yellows, oranges, greens and blues.

The leftover crayon is always brown.

What’s odd about this trend towards the browning of the females in bird species, is that it’s opposite to what we do as human beings. Men’s clothing in most department stores tends to be in various conservative shades of brown, while women’s collections tend to embrace explosions of pinks, purples and reds. We are not birds. To state the obvious. We do our posturing, as men, on sportsfields and in bars, and it has more to do with loudness and brute strength rather than our outer appearance.

So why do female birds put up with it? They should be heading to the parliament of owls and handcuffing themselves to the fence, only handcuffing is tricky when you have no hands. They instead seem to be there to flatter the males with their bloated chests and outrageous songs during the mating season. They hide behind the tangled twigs and sticks of their insecurities while the males bully each other out in the open.

Too often it is the female who is left warming the nest and the eggs while her mate is off sniffing the plumage of another, and, sometimes, he doesn’t even bother to make her a nest, but leaves her to parasitize the nests of others, as in the case of the cuckoo.

I like this quote about the Bearded Tit, panurus biarmicus: “The male has a pale blue-grey head with a conspicuous black moustache extending down below the eye. The female’s head is plain brown.”

Or how about this one, about the Greenfinch, carduelis chloris: “The female is duller than the male, and lacks the bright yellow markings.” Plain. Dull. Lacking. There’s something sinister about the use of those words for something. You don’t immediately get upset about them, because they seem to be true. Who gets upset about plainness? Who gets worked up about something dull? Well, it’s an insidious evil- to condemn the entire female population to being just boring. Too boring to defend or describe. The writer of that book may as well have said “The females are just too boring to describe- brown, brown, brown. Yaaawn.”

So why does it happen this way? Why should some birds lose their entire names to the male population. She isn’t a female peacock- she’s a peahen. While you’re all leaning over trying to get him to fan his obscenely colourful butt so you can pluck a keepsake, she’s just beaking around the bushes trying to find food. Nobody is making table decorations using a peahen’s feathers.

Is this something that can ever change? Human beings can, by force of will and some resilience to being mocked, pioneer new styles and fashions. Women can be leaders in terms of appearance. Women can construct society so that they can work, mother and play in greater and greater extremes, and not necessarily to the detriment of anyone around them. Birds are just birds. You can read about birds in antiquity, and, with a time-machine, dump them in your gardens and parks and not see a single difference. They aren’t socially evolving or adapting, they’re just staying the same.

That’s comforting to a degree- what you see is what you get- but infinitely sad, too. Until brown is imbued with value in the currency of attraction, the females of most bird species will be condemned to a back-seat role. The males will swoop and strut and sing their way into stories, novels and films, but the females will do nothing more than warm the nests that nurture even more males.

Think of your friends amongst the birds- the wren, the pipit, the swans and herons. Picture the swallows, the warblers and the chaffs. Remember that behind every successful male bird is a dowdy brown mess, quivering with a beakful of worm on the nest. Is it too much to hope that the female revolution will take place? That brown will be replaced with the shimmering blues and purples of the underbellies of mating males? That brightness and excitement will be the clothing of the future? Maybe all it will take is for one small brown female to buck the trend and the pigment genes and sprout a crop of green tailfeathers. Let herself be expressed, and the males be damned!

Let the females not just be the little brown jobs of the little brown jobs.

It wasn’t 2000 words, but it sure felt like it.


  1. Lovely, lovely post! I think a book of fables is in order - you have such an amazing way with words and analogies!

  2. Almost 650 words short. Ooo-er...I'll bet she of the flaming hair will have *something* to say about that!

    Fend her off with this review:
    "The evergreen SquidSquirts has struck back at the challenging masses, with a towering, epic treatise, despite being set a topic so grossly obscure and unfair, so as to beggar belief. There are many pretenders, but only one Scott Dunlop."

    That should do it :)

  3. @Rox: I can't wait till you own your own publishing house and you have the freedom to commission titles. I'll be waiting...
    @andre: That's if she reads it... In fact, having done two, I'll protest by not doing a third until she has. Off to cut and paste your review, now...


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