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Two Expeditions Spotlight the Work of Ladies Ornithologists in Colombia and Brazil

montage of black and white photo of a woman from 1912 and a color photo of a team of 5 women in Colombia forest
Elizabeth Kerr in 1912, and members of the Kerr legacy ornithological expedition in 2020. Photograph of Kerr from the archives of the American Museum of Pure Historical past, picture of 2020 workforce courtesy of the Kerr legacy expedition.

From the Autumn 2023 subject of Dwelling Fowl journal. Subscribe now.

Just a few hours earlier than the primary solar ­rays of the day pierced the jungle cover within the jap foothills of the Central Andes mountains, 5 Colombian girls wielded headlamps and machetes in an ornithological quest for Sooty Ant-Tanagers, White-bibbed Manakins, Magdalena Antbirds, and different forest birds. Guided by fowl songs, the expeditionaries launched into a each day routine of trudging throughout muddy slopes and rocky terrain, fortified by the information that they had been treading the identical path as Elizabeth Kerr—an unsung legend of ornithology who had collected lots of of specimens for the famed American Museum of Pure Historical past fowl surveys in Colombia greater than a century in the past.

Kerr’s title got here as a “revelation” to Juliana Soto-Patiño, one of many Colombian ornithologists on that 2020 expedition, as she was getting ready to hitch a bigger challenge to resurvey Colombian birds documented by AMNH ornitholo­gists within the early 1900s.

Once we discovered Kerr, it bonded us lots, as a result of we didn’t have a [woman] position mannequin for thus lengthy.

Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela, assistant professor, College of California, Santa Cruz.

“It was a shock for us to listen to a few girl in Colombia, at the moment, doing fieldwork and collections,” stated Soto-Patiño, who’s now a PhD pupil on the College of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The invention of Kerr grew to become the inspiration for a special form of expedition that went past a contemporary resur­vey of Colombian birdlife—one with the added objective to raise up the voices of Colombian girls in ornithology. The expedition launched in December 2020, comprising eight girls ornithol­ogists from 4 Colombian analysis establishments. In 5 days, the workforce documented almost 90 fowl species within the Central Andes foothills the place they labored—together with 26 species that had been a match with Elizabeth Kerr’s collections in 1907. Soto-Patiño and her all-women workforce of fellow scientists summarized their fieldwork findings, and highlighted Kerr’s affect, in an article revealed within the journal Ornithological Functions in Might 2023.

And so they weren’t alone of their mis­sion; in 2019, one other all-women workforce had executed a grueling ornithological expedition within the Amazon area of Bra­zil to pay homage to one more unher­alded girl—Emilie Snethlage—who had additionally made pioneering contributions to the scientific information of South American birdlife over 100 years in the past.

Each expeditions used area orni­thology within the Twenty first century to shine a highlight on the contributions of girls ornithologists. Because the Colombian authors wrote of their Ornithological Functions article, they launched their expedition to “recog­nize, spotlight, and elevate the voices and legacies of girls which have been systemically saved invisible.”

“By Ourselves, Utilizing Our Personal Voices and Minds”

Initially, Soto-Patiño and her colleagues signed up for an expedition underneath the Colombia Resurvey Mission, an effort by Colombian universities and analysis establishments to check Twenty first-century fowl species distributions in 5 areas to knowledge from the AMNH surveys within the early Twentieth century, as a method of searching for attainable vary shifts or extinctions on account of habitat loss and local weather change. Whereas leafing via the writings of Frank Chapman, the AMNH curator of birds within the early 1900s who organized the previous museum surveys, Soto-Patiño found a reference to the “Mrs. Kerr Assortment”—one of many specimen collections that helped Chapman higher perceive fowl distribution patterns in Colombia. Chapman went on to be considered one of many founding figures of recent ornithology, credited with beginning the Christmas Fowl Rely, whereas “Mrs. Kerr” was relegated to foot­notes in Chapman’s revealed work, regardless that she made exceptional contributions to his analysis. (Some encyclopedias even assumed there was a typo, referring to a “Mr. Kerr” as a substitute of Mrs. Kerr.)

As fellow expeditionary Nelsy Niño-Rodríguez of the Humboldt Insti­tute in Colombia put it, they now envi­sioned an all-women, all-Colombian leg of the resurvey challenge—conducting fieldwork and analysis “by ourselves, utilizing our personal voices and minds.”

“Once we discovered Kerr, it bonded us lots,” stated Natalia Ocampo-Peñuela, a member of the all-women Colombian expedition who’s now an assistant professor on the College of California, Santa Cruz. “As a result of we didn’t have a [woman] position mannequin for thus lengthy.”

Not a lot is understood concerning the biog­raphy of Elizabeth Kerr. Based on Niño-Rodríguez, there is just one web page about Kerr’s life “written by her personal hand,” a self-authored article revealed in Collier’s journal in 1912. In that piece, Kerr referred to her work “within the jungles of South America, amassing uncommon tropical birds for museums and personal collectors.”

“Usually I see no human being for 3 weeks at a time,” Kerr wrote. “But I’m not afraid. And I like the jungle.”

Although Kerr wasn’t formally employed on the American Museum of Pure Historical past, she contributed to Chapman’s work as a contract fowl collector. Of their Ornithological Appli­cations article, Soto-Patiño and her col­leagues wrote that whereas different girls within the early Twentieth century “wore fancy hats adorned with tropical fowl feathers” and picked up stuffed birds, Kerr usually labored in stifling rainforests alone in a garb of “bloomers, an extended taking pictures jacket, and a rubber hat to guard her from the tropical rains.”

And based on the historic file of letter exchanges between Chapman and Kerr, she additionally labored underneath anxious expectations by her employer. Their correspondence “was ridden with calls for from Chapman for higher collections from Kerr,” Soto-Patiño and her colleagues wrote in Ornithological Functions, “usually anticipating her solo work to satisfy the identical requirements as that of skilled collectors and even workforce expeditions carried out by the AMNH.”

“A lot of the Chapman–Kerr letters talk about the distinction in specimen costs and the fixed battle between Kerr requesting extra funds for her expedition and Chapman demanding higher outcomes to wire more cash.”

Over her in depth travels to Colom­bia (first between 1906 and 1907, after which from 1909 to 1912), Kerr is credited with submitting 400 specimens of about 200 fowl species to the American Museum of Pure Historical past, together with the one specimen of the Sooty Ant-Tan­ager within the museum at the moment.

“Kerr’s explorations … stay one of many few investigations of the avifauna of this distant, inaccessible, and incred­ibly various territory,” Soto-Patiño and her colleagues wrote in Ornithological Functions. “Her specimens embrace a myriad of species which might be troublesome to watch … even the elusive and enig­matic Rufous-vented Floor-Cuckoo, which has only a few observations in Colombia.”

Five woman on a ridge looking out over the mountains with binoculars.
The Kerr expedition workforce searching for birds. Photograph courtesy of the Kerr legacy expedition.

Retracing Elizabeth Kerr’s Footsteps

Based mostly on the tough descriptions of Kerr’s first amassing interval, Soto-Patiño and her colleagues selected to retrace Kerr’s footsteps within the jungles close to the city of Fresno within the Tolima division of Colombia. Even earlier than they set foot within the forest, the expeditionaries encountered biases in opposition to girls employees within the Twenty first century. Whereas scouting earlier than the journey, Ocampo-Peñuela stated she encountered remarks like, “Do you even know find out how to use a machete?” Many locals had been curious and receptive to their mission, she stated, however some proclaimed the forest to be too harmful for younger girls.

Five woman in a tent examining birds.
The Kerr expedition workforce examines birds. Photograph courtesy of the Kerr legacy expedition.
Two women walk through the thick forest.
The expeditionaries spent almost 20 hours per day within the area, mountain climbing into the Central Andes foothills to entry habitats for inside forest birds. Photograph by Memo Gómez.

But as soon as within the foothills of the Cen­tral Andes, the workforce rose every day at 4 a.m. from the identical hacienda (ranch) that Chapman and his colleagues had inhabited greater than a century in the past. Every day, they’d don headlamps and haul their heavy tools to a cable automobile—an aerial raise that related the ranch to the forest. Whereas some workforce members meticulously arrange and checked mist nets to seize birds, others labored at a makeshift area lab to course of the collected birds. Exhausted however resolute, they’d return to the hacienda round 11 p.m.

Because the all-women expedition was cov­ered by information retailers in Colombia, images and video emerged of the ladies, together with a pregnant Ocampo-Peñuela, work­ing in attempting area circumstances. The photographs on TV crushed the misunderstanding that ladies aren’t suited to grueling ornitho­logical fieldwork, stated expedition workforce member Jessica Díaz-Cárdenas of the Humboldt Institute.

“You primarily see footage of males… going into tremendous dense forest,” Díaz-Cárdenas stated about typical media depictions of scientific fieldwork in Colombia. “[But] it’s not as a result of girls will not be doing the work.”

Aerial view of two blue boats on a greenish river next to forest.
An all-women expedition in Brazil documented 429 fowl species within the distant area alongside the Juruá River that had not been beforehand surveyed for birdlife. Photograph courtesy of Emilie Snethlage expedition workforce.

Figuring out Boundaries Alongside Brazil’s Juruá River

A 12 months earlier in Brazil, one other all-women expedition had additionally retraced the steps of a pioneering girl in ornithology—Twentieth-century German naturalist Emilie Snethlage.

Within the late 1800s, Snethlage studied pure historical past on the College of Ber­lin, the place on the time college guidelines mandated that feminine college students arrive 5 minutes earlier than the beginning of courses, sit behind a folding display screen, and keep there till quarter-hour after the top of sophistication. Her persistence took her to check and acquire birds alongside Amazonian trib­utaries in Brazil in 1905, a pursuit she continued till her loss of life in 1929.

Snethlage was an inspiration to Glaucia Del-Rio, a Brazilian ornithol­ogist and postdoctoral fellow on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who had had her personal profession experiences of being excluded from fieldwork alternatives deemed too harmful for ladies. So in 2016 she began organizing a area expedition to check birds within the Juruá River area—the one main tributary within the Amazon River basin that was unex­plored by Snethlage—as a strategy to com­plete Snethlage’s legacy and spotlight her contributions to Brazilian ornithol­ogy. The expedition got here to fruition in 2019, just some months earlier than the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and resulted within the first complete stock of fowl species from the Juruá area, with 429 species recorded. Del-Rio and colleagues wrote about their findings in an article revealed within the Journal of Ornithology—the identical Ger­man journal that Snethlage had used to publish her findings over a century in the past.

Notably, Del-Rio and her colleagues reported the primary proof that the center Juruá River acts as a barrier for at the least 4 species of antbirds. Ant­birds inhabit the shadowy understory of forests they usually’re not inclined to fly throughout the forest breaks lower by large rivers. Del-Rio and her workforce discovered proof that, over many years, the antbirds on both aspect of the river develop minor genetic variations, which is why they’re thought of subspecies.

Maybe appropriately, the workforce found the differentiation amongst Black-faced Antbirds by specializing in the females of the species. Whereas the males had been primarily equivalent on either side of the river, the females had stark dif­ferences in coloration on their throats and underparts.

Marky Mutchler, a PhD pupil on the College of Chicago who joined Del-Rio on the Juruá River expedition, stated the invention was a reminder of the significance of learning feminine birds.

“Lots of people don’t take a look at feminine birds,” Mutchler stated, noting that the historic deal with male birds is a reflec­tion of male domination within the area of ornithology. “They’re extra so centered on the flashy vibrant males.”

The Colombian expedition hon­oring Kerr additionally yielded vital findings about antbirds: concerningly, that they’re disappearing. The workforce witnessed swaths of what the AMNH ornithologists 100 years in the past had known as an “ocean of forest” wholly cleared away. The deforestation is prob­ably why the Twenty first-century, all-women Colombian expedition now not encountered most of the antbirds that Kerr had collected within the Central Andes.

Whereas the 2 expeditions set mile­stones within the illustration of girls in area ornithology, the expeditionaries on each analysis groups agree there nonetheless are loads of biases in opposition to girls in science that persist within the Twenty first century. In 2020—the identical 12 months that the all-women, all-Colombian expedition launched—an article revealed within the journal Nature Communications steered that feminine protégés reap extra advantages when mentored by males. In a response pub­lished in 2021 within the journal Zoologia, Del-Rio and coauthors wrote that “if (and it’s a large if)” such a suggestion is true, it isn’t owing to “some inherent feminine drawback,” however to the “current gender-biased system” that privileges male professionals on the expense of the systemic, institutional inclusion of girls scientists.

Ocampo-Peñuela hopes that the pictures from the Colombian expedition assist to foster such inclusion, by inspir­ing a “country-wide motion” that opens up pathways for conversations on girls as mentors, position fashions, and better-recognized pioneers in academia.

“Being surrounded by actually powerful girls, I may see the way forward for Colom­bian ornithology earlier than my eyes,” Ocampo-Peñuela stated about her experi­ence with the all-women expedition. “I would like women taking a look at these footage to see themselves as expeditionaries, to know they’ve a job mannequin, and to know that as a girl you are able to do something you set your self as much as.”

In regards to the Writer

Pareesay Afzal’s work on this story as a pupil editorial assistant was made attainable by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communi­cations Fund, with assist from Jay Branegan (Cornell ‘72) and Stefania Pittaluga.

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