What I’m calling the “dog/Smurf problem” is the common trend in children’s literature and other media to (1) assume that animals are male and (2) use token female characters (e.g. Smurfette) whose sole distinguishing quality is their femaleness. This is a widely-known and discussed pattern—here’s one particularly good explanation of it, from which I’m taking the “dog/Smurf” name.
There are many, many ways to deal with this problem, from the point of view of both writers and consumers of children’s (and grown-up, possibly to a lesser extent) media. I want to talk about one small thing people can do to combat part (1) of the problem—our tendency to assume animals are male unless told otherwise. While it’s not always easy to tell at a glance whether an animal is male or female, many familiar, urban species can be sexed pretty easily. Here’s a quick guide to some of them in eastern North America (some of these can be applied elsewhere, especially in the case of invasive species):
- female American robins often have an oranger breast and paler head than males
- male cardinals are completely red; females are reddish and olive/brown
- male house sparrows have a black bib, grey cap, and chestnut-brown head; females have a plain brown head and breast
- female house and purple finches are brown and stripey; males are brown with red heads and backs (more so on the purple finch)
- female red-winged blackbirds are also brown and stripey, though larger than finches; males are black with red and yellow shoulders
- female mallard ducks are mottled brown with an orange and black bill; males have green heads, a grey breast, and a yellow bill. However, for part of the year, males are in “eclipse” plumage, and look like females, but with a yellow bill. Fun fact: only the females quack.
- female American goldfinches are mostly brown with a yellow head and black wings—as, in fact, are nonbreeding males; breeding males are bright yellow with black wings
- pigeons (“rock doves” if you want to be a snob) are not obviously sexually dimorphic, but males are often bigger and will puff up their throats to display to females
- grey squirrels are also not obviously sexually dimorphic, but in the breeding season, you can often see the female’s enlarged nipples (oh, grow up you guys)
So, there you have it for some common birds (and other denizens of birdfeeders) that I can think of. There are many that aren’t sexually dimorphic (or only subtly so). In those cases, try to stop yourself when referring to it as “he”. You could just call any animal “it”, or deliberately call them “she”. (Why not?)
(Oh, and if you see a bird bringing food to a nest, it’s not necessarily a female.)
Only a related note, for many species, there are different words for males and females (like mare/stallion, doe/stag, hen/rooster). I’ve noticed—I don’t know if this is a real pattern or just confirmation bias—that in many such cases, the word for the male animal is retained but the word for the female of the species is less commonly used. For example, “tomcat” is much more common than “molly” or “queen”, the proper terms for a female cat. Same with “drake” and “gander” (male ducks and geese) versus whatever you’re supposed to call female ducks and geese (possibly hens). The word “jackass” is rarely used to refer to a male donkey, but it’s even less common than “jenny”, the word for a female donkey. Oh, and “bull” versus “cow”—I hear many people use “cow” for cattle of any sex. This is really interesting to me, because for so long “man” referred to a generalized human whereas “woman” could only mean a female. Though male is still the default gender assumption for many animals, the common term for some species is actually the word for a female.
Update: How could I leave out the invertebrates? Most honeybees that you see are female, as are most ants (but not most bumblebees). Virtually all aphids are female. Slugs and snails are hermaphrodites. You can tell male and female crickets apart by looking for an ovipositor—a long pointy bit sticking out the back end, which females use to lay eggs.