< Back

Bizarre! Female Red-Winged Blackbird with Malelike Epaulets!, 2021

charcoal, acrylic and oil on mounted paper in reclaimed frame

Bizarre! Female Red-Winged Blackbird with Malelike Epaulets!, 2021

Occasionally, female Red-Winged Blackbirds will develop red epaulets, widely understood to be a feature only males of the species are “supposed to” possess. The coloration does not seem to impede on breeding success or other normal functions. The females simply exist. I understand this as an instance of “queerness” in nature, by which I mean our heteronormative understandings falls short of comprehending the species’ full spectrum of existence.

From my thesis writing:

"Consider the Red-winged Blackbird of the family Icteridae (icterids, commonly). These birds are abundant in marshes and fields across the majority of North America. Red-winged Blackbirds feed, fly and and roost in huge flocks, as briefed in Golden’s Birds of North America. David Sibley provides a physical description of the icterid family in his book on bird behaviors as follows: "Most North American male icterids are largely black, with a few species showing bright red or yellow “flash colors” on the wings (called “epaulets”) or the head. In many cases black icterids sport beautiful iridescence, which can be appreciated only at close quarters and in good light. Most females of these black icterid species are brownish or brownish-black and are sometimes streaked like a sparrow." Like most species of birds, it would seem, the distinctions between males and females feel obvious and binary; the males have bright colors (iridescence even!) and the females are plain, and buff-colored. Though, as Bruce Bagemihl notes, it is not uncommon for female Red-winged Blackbirds to develop “malelike epaulets,” referring to the red shoulder patches often associated with males of the species. If we are to accept the definition of queerness describing any sort of variance from an established and accepted norm, this instance of coloration deviation feels particularly queer, straddling gender distinctions that are generally perceived as standard. Bagemihl recognizes that one might expect the female birds with “malelike” coloration to be “avoided by members of the opposite sex because they do not resemble “obviously” heterosexual partners” but he assures the reader that this is not the case. The female birds with red epaulets simply exist, proving perhaps that our heteronormative understanding of this species falls short of comprehending their full spectrum of being."