Remarkable Female Heroes of Bird Conservation
An inspiring new book shines a light on more than 30 female avian superheroes.
Posted January 22, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
I recently read an inspirational and fascinating book by bird expert Rosemary Low titled Female Heroes of Bird Conservation.1,2,3 As Rosemary notes, ask someone to name a famous woman in the world of fauna conservation and they would probably mention Jane Goodall for her work with chimpanzees. Then ask that person to name a woman who had achieved great things in bird conservation, and they would probably give you a blank look. Yet women have made and continue to make truly remarkable achievements.
I'm pleased that Rosemary could answer a few questions about her landmark book. Here's what she had to say.
Why did you write Female Heroes of Bird Conservation?
I went where the parrots took me. I was the first person ever to write a book about endangered parrots. By the time I was in my forties, my writing priorities and interests were making a big shift from aviculture to conservation. My biggest joy was to observe parrots in the wild.
At the time of my first trips to the tropics, there was no interest in parrot conservation, and little was known about the status of most species in the wild or the impact of trapping for export which took off in the 1980s. Soon the trade was unsustainable, and many parrots species were in serious decline – but no one seemed to care.
In 1987 Mike Reynolds cared. He founded the World Parrot Trust. From the start, I edited the newsletter, soon to be a magazine. Through its influence, it was the first time that parrot keepers and conservationists joined forces to try to do something to conserve parrot populations in the wild. I got to know many people involved in parrot conservation.
Just as when I had been a teenager in the local cage bird society, it was a male-dominated sphere. But so were most areas of interest concerning the natural world.
By the start of this century, change was afoot. More women were becoming involved in bird conservation as universities opened courses for conservation and environmental issues. During my travels, I met some truly inspirational women. The classic example is Neiva Guedes in Brazil.
She saw, during a field trip as a student, that the iconic Hyacinth Macaw, whose numbers in the Pantanal had been decimated by trapping, was edging towards extinction.
Unable to concern major conservation organisations in its plight, starting with no help in the field and no money, she set up a conservation programme which undoubtedly saved the macaw in the Pantanal. This was done at great personal cost, through passion and extreme determination.
I met other women, such as the Americans Sarah Otterstrom and LoraKim Joyner, who, with equal initiative and passion, set about saving parrots in different areas of Central America. The work of the women featured in this book covers a wide range of species, from albatrosses to finches.
Their stories were remarkable. I felt compelled to tell them – compelled to write about the unsung female heroes of bird conservation who, for too long, had mostly gone unnoticed under the radar.
This led me to research women of the past whose names had mainly been forgotten, whose achievements, academic and in the field, seemed almost whitewashed from history. I wanted to revive their stories. They did amazing things at a time when women were expected to stay at home and raise families. But they rebelled – or they did both, which was even more extraordinary.
It's wonderful to see how women starting with nothing but their own passion and without the benefit of funding, or the assistance of major organisations, can go on to found conservation organisations which today are making a major impact, especially in the Neotropics.
Who is your intended audience?
I want all women to be empowered by the histories of the women in my book, and I want all men to appreciate the huge contribution that women have made to science and conservation. And to note that some women were not involved in these spheres until they were in their forties! Yet they went on to make major contributions.
Are you hopeful that as people learn more about the amazing contributions of these women, more women will become conservationists?
As I wrote the book, I focused strongly on young women working in conservation today. I included chapters on the problems and, yes, the discrimination that they have encountered. But I showed how these were overcome to encourage those with similar issues to meet them head on and to know that they can win.
Yes! I am adamant that more women should be involved in conservation because they have much-needed qualities, some of which are usually not found in their male counterparts. So, yes, I want to inspire more women to make a career in conservation.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I have studied and lived with parrots all my life. I would not know how to live without them. They are amazingly sentient, intelligent, and often very affectionate creatures. In captivity, their psychological needs and their individuality are, sadly, often ignored. It is of deep concern to me that today many parrots spend their lives in cages which are much too small and do not meet even the basic requirements.
Sometimes the breeders are well-meaning but fail to understand the birds in their care. This also happens in the name of breeding for profit. It is the equivalent of puppy farms or keeping chickens in battery cages. These are now recognised as unethical. It is time that breeders of parrots, commercial or otherwise, learned to treat parrots with greater respect and understanding.
Some of the women in my book, such as Len Howard, had a deep understanding of wild birds as individuals. Her rapport with them was remarkable. We can all learn a lot from her.
In conversation with Rosemary Low.
1) Female Heroes of Bird Conservation will be available in the United States from Buteo Books in mid-February.
2) Many people can bring to mind women renowned for animal conservation, but few would be able to name a woman whose efforts have been dedicated to the conservation of birds. Rosemary Low’s stunning and informative book Female Heroes of Bird Conservation rectifies this injustice. Beautifully produced, its one hundred photographs include fascinating historical images, as well as colourful pictures of bird species and their saviours. An avian expert in her own right, Rosemary’s book beautifully pulls together the stories, challenges and remarkable achievements of an intriguing range of women whose stories are guaranteed to touch the hearts of readers of both sexes. Well researched and highly readable, you can open it at any chapter and be inspired by what can be done, usually initially with limited financial resources, and without the backup of major organisations. With environmental issues never more topical or important, Female Heroes of Bird Conservation is nothing short of an avian tour de force.
3) My background is non-scientific. I left school at 16 because both my parents had died and I needed to earn my living. My first job was totally unrelated to birds, which had been my interest, and soon my passion, since I was very young. I loved animals but a rabbit was the only pet I was allowed. However, when I was 12 I bought a Budgerigar in a pet shop and soon I was breeding these wonderful – and today greatly under-valued – little birds. This led, naturally, to keeping other birds, including finches, Cockatiels and other species of Parakeets. No one I knew had any interest in birds, until I joined the local cage bird society when I was 14. I always enjoyed writing so in my early twenties I had my first articles published in the weekly magazine Cage & Aviary Birds. By my mid-twenties I was a member of the editorial staff of that magazine (and ultimately deputy editor), a job I relished. After some years I moved to the Canary Islands and became the curator of birds at two great collections, Loro Parque in Tenerife and Palmitos Park in Gran Canaria. For information about Rosemary's books go to https://www.rosemarylow.co.uk.
Bekoff, Marc. The Brave Women Who Saved Birds from "Murderous Millinery."
_____. Anne Innis Dagg: Courageous Researcher Who Loves Giraffes.