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Do Birds Understand Gender?

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Recently, Editor was telling me about a story a friend was writing. Someone else commented on the story, which featured a bird that used they/them pronouns. The critic argued that birds wouldn’t have nonbinary identities.

A black crow perched on a fence, in profile to the camera, facing the left of the frame.
Who’s a pretty boy? Er, girl? BIRD! (Alexas Fotos / Pexels.com)

Which then begged the question: Do birds understand gender? And even if they do, do they understand it like we humans do?

I think the answer, to both questions, is “probably not.”

Humans Made Gender Up

The issue here is that the critic is using a fundamentally flawed understanding of gender. Their understanding of this social construct is couched in biological sex. That means, in their mind, male = man (he/him) and female = woman (she/her).

There are various issues with this understanding, not the least of which is that biological sex isn’t always neat and tidy. Intersex individuals, for example, break the myth that every human being is either biologically male or female and it’s easy to tell them apart. Trans individuals may represent a divide in gene expression that influences behavior vs. gene expression that influences physical phenotype.

Whether trans identities are rooted in some sort of biological “messiness,” as intersex individuals are, is beside the point here. The point is that sex is rarely neat and tidy, and as such, there’s not even a perfect 1:1 correlation between chromosomal phenotype and perceived sex. Given that, there’s absolutely no way there can be a perfect correlation between “biological sex” (as determined by visible sex markers, rather than chromosomes) and “gender.”

Is Gender a Social Construct?

Some people argue gender isn’t a social construct. I take the tack that it most definitely is, for two reasons:

  1. Concepts of what it means to be a “man” or a “woman” vary across time; and
  2. Concepts of what it means to be a “man” or a “woman” vary across cultures.

Thus, we see different behaviors associated with men and women at different times within the same culture. And we see different ideas about what “men” and “women” are like existing simultaneously across contemporary cultures.

Generally speaking, that is a pretty good indication that gendered behavior is the result of social conditioning, which depends on the culture we live in and the historical era we occupy. Thus: gender is a social construct, not a biological reality. Biological realities tend to be somewhat more fixed; the “wandering” of concepts of gender suggest much more flexibility and change.

Basically: there’s nothing on our DNA that says men act like X or women act like Y. There may be subtle influences or predispositions to be a bit like this or like that, but by and large, a lot of what we think is just “how women are” comes down to social conditioning.

If It’s a Social Construct …

Given that gender is a social construct, it varies across cultures and through time. That means humans don’t even necessarily define gender the same way. People in medieval England thought about “men” and “women” differently than their Victorian peers, even though they’re all “English,” steeped in “English” culture.

Contemporary Indigenous societies had different conceptions of gender. Many Indigenous cultures in North America are traditionally matriarchal, and women occupy leadership roles. There is also the concept of a “third” gender, the Two-Spirit, in some Indigenous cultures. Two-Spirit individuals may be considered both “men” and “women” and neither at the same time. They are believed to have both “masculine” and “feminine” spirits.

Two-Spirit individuals often held positions of great importance as well. And this was going on at the same time that medieval people in England were thinking about “men” and “women.”

Many other cultures also have traditional third-gender categories, such as hjiras in India and Thai “lady-boys.” Given that, we can see a lot more thinking around constructions of gender, even within human society and throughout human history.

So, if we can’t agree on what gender is across time and culture, then what hope does a duck or a crow have?

Ducks Don’t Care

I’m going to run with the duck example for a second here, and I’m going to point out that ducks are … relatively indiscriminate about what they fuck. We might think of them as bisexual or even pansexual, if we were to imagine that ducks do have “gender identities” as we think of them.

Mallard drakes are infamous for this. They will screw female mallards. They will screw other drakes. They’ve been known to screw dead ducks.

A mallard drake, with characteristic iridescent green head, floats on a body of water. Mallards are infamous for being sexually indiscriminate.
Pictured: an utter heathen. (Pixabay / Pexels.com)

So, I have to say, I’m not sure ducks give a crap about gender—particularly not the way we think of it, at least. They certainly don’t seem to have the same scruples or hangups around sex that we do, so perhaps by insisting that ducks adhere to human gender roles, we’re … projecting a bit.

And how about peafowl? We all know peacocks have beautiful feathers, but did you know that peahens can also develop “male” plumage? They’ll even start acting like peacocks when this happens.

Researchers have theorized that in peafowl, “male” is the default setting. That’s different from humans, where female is the default setting (that’s why male humans have nipples!).

Do peafowl understand a peahen that develops “male” plumage and other “male” behaviors to be … trans? Well, we don’t know. We could theorize that happens. (We could argue the same thing about clownfish, where the largest male will transition to being a female when the reproductive female dies.)
But again: that’s us projecting our understanding of gender onto a bunch of animals. We don’t know that they understand gender at all.

Crows Might Have Their Own System

So now, let’s look at a different bird: the crow. Crows are very, very smart. The original discussion of this story focused on a crow, so that’s part of the reason I’m circling back here. If there were a bird that were to understand gender, it’s probably going to be a crow.

But this is the next question. Let’s say the crow does have the capacity to understand and construct some sort of gender identity.

Why on Earth should we assume that the crow’s gender identity develops along the same lines as human gender identity? Crows may understand gender, but their identities might be very, very different from how we envision gender.

For example, crows might simply assume everyone has the same gender. Is that gender “masculine” or “feminine”? Do crows have concepts of masculine and feminine? Or would they just all be nonbinary, or would they all be Two-Spirit, believing that every crow has both a masculine and a feminine spirit?

For the person who equates biological sex and gender, the answer seems obvious: male crows will have masculine gender identities, and female crows will have feminine gender identities.

But, as demonstrated, these gender identities aren’t stable in humanity, nor do biological sex and gender form a 1:1 correlation. Sex chromosomes don’t always dictate “gender performance,” if you will, as in our peahens. And in our ducks, it’s not like they seem to care anyway.

So who’s to say a male crow would understand itself as “he/him”? We have honestly zero idea. If crows could talk to us and articulate what they think in human language, we might be very surprised to hear they think about sex and gender in very similar ways. Or we might be shocked to find they have their own (relatively sophisticated) system. Or maybe they don’t conceive of gender at all.

Anthropomorphism Binds Us to Human Systems

What’s happening here is anthropomorphism, where humans project human traits onto non-human creatures. We see this all the time in kids’ movies: Simba is a male lion, so he conceives of himself as he/him, as masculine. Nala, by contrast, is female so she is she/her and conceives of herself as feminine. We use terms like “king” and “queen” to describe them.

And yes, there are biological sex differences, but how do we know these animals think about themselves like this? We don’t, so we’re simply projecting our own understandings onto them.

Hyenas would be a good example here. Female hyenas have large clitorises, so large that they look like penises. Female hyenas are also dominant in packs; there’s usually one “alpha” female, if you will, who is the reproductive female. She monopolizes the males and will harass other females, particularly those who get pregnant. She might even kill the cubs of other females. And the dominant female hyena will use her large clit to penetrate other hyenas!

Given all that, we might say this “alpha” female hyena is actually very “masculine” in terms of behavior. In turn, it might not be surprising to find out that, if hyenas had sophisticated gender identity like humans do, that this “female” hyena identifies with a more masculine ideal, versus a more feminized one.

Extrapolating to Fiction

This is a long way of saying we don’t goddamn well know, and we probably never will. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if our crow uses he/him pronouns or they/them pronouns in our fiction.

The problem with the critique is the insistence that crows (or whatever other animal) must adhere to the human gender binary. It’s simply not true. This person saw no reason why crows could ever identify as nonbinary. That’s not necessarily untrue—crows might not identify themselves at all. They might have no concept of gender.

But that means it’s equally true that crows might not use the binary system humans have. So why insist that crows can’t be nonbinary, that they must adhere to the binary? If nonbinary crows are nonsensical, he/him and she/her crows are equally nonsensical (if not more so!).

This is where we wrap back into the idea that we’re working with fiction. There is no way of knowing anything about how crows “really” identify in real life. So when we project that crows are nonbinary or that they have “traditional” human gender identities, we are simply making it the fuck up. We’re applying what we know or understand from the human sociocultural world. We are anthropomorphizing.

The cover of Flight of the Omega, a book that discusses how gender might work in alien birds, features a cowboy in a brown shirt in the foreground, with two peacock-colored, ostrich-like birds, and a redheaded man in a blue shirt in the background. They appear to be on some sort of ranch.

That means we’re free to play and explore, especially in fiction. I did this in Flight of the Omega. The Alerians, a bird-like alien species, have a two-tier gender system, with alphas and omegas. JP, an omega, suggests that applying human gender identities is not something the birds tend to do. They think of themselves as alphas or omegas, not “men” and “women.” JP, as an omega, might be expected to take the more “feminine” human identity, but he doesn’t. He argues that, since they don’t really think of themselves as anything but alpha or omega, the birds are free to adopt any human gender identity they wish. And that’s why JP is he/him, despite being an omega, which might be seen to be more “feminine.”

He argues that Jack, an alpha bird, is similarly free to switch his gender if he so feels like it; there’s no reason Jack has to think of himself as “a man” or even “masculine.”

By contrast, I went the other way with the alpha/beta/omega system in Evan and the Alpha. Every single one of the aliens conceives of themselves as masculine, using he/him pronouns, despite being alphas, betas, or omegas.

That’s because everyone starts out as a beta. They later become alphas or omegas, depending on their own desires. Some stay beta; others become alphas and yet others omegas. And there’s some implication that alphas can become omegas and vice versa.

Everyone’s gender identity, however, remains stable across the lifespan, even as their sex slides around all over the place. The idea of “she/her,” of identifying those of different sexes as having different genders, is foreign to the aliens, and they struggle with it when they meet some human women.

This is not at all inconceivable; if we were to meet alien cultures, it’s quite possible that their system of gender identity would be much different from ours. Trying to map our system onto another culture’s usually results in violence, as we can see in colonial examples, where Two-Spirit individuals in North America were denigrated.

Go Ahead—Make It Up

The long and short of all this is that we’re making gender up as we go along anyway. It shifts and changes over time and space, as human cultures evolve. Given that, there is absolutely no reason to assume that non-human creatures are somehow beholden to gender identity as we conceive of it—we aren’t even as beholden to it as we like to think!

So go ahead; make it all up as you go along. Fiction is for exploring possibility—and gender is a fiction with infinite possibilities.

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By Cherry

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