Women’s Work to Save the Birds

July 18, 2023

A review by Bryony Angell

Female Heroes of Bird Conservation, by Rosemary Low

Insignis Publications, 2022

254 pages, paperback

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15251

As a reader of birding media, you might ask yourself, who are the prominent women in the history of bird conservation? Rachel Carson is one name among many, our sisters in the field whose work has not yet garnered the imagination and attention of the public to the same degree of some men. Why do we not know the names and work of more women in bird conservation? Rosemary Low’s Female Heroes of Bird Conservation attempts to answer this question and fill a necessary demographic gap in the written history of the conservation of bird species from the 19th century to the present. Low describes the work of over 30 women scientists, authors, wildlife rehabilitators, and conservation leaders across the bird world.

Low, a longtime journalist and author focused on the natural history, conservation, and care of parrots, turned her attention to a book about women in the field after writing an article series for the U.K. magazine Parrots. During this project, she realized nearly all her subjects were women. “This book shines a spotlight on some of these female heroes,” writes Low. Her book both starts the conversation about accomplished women nearly lost to history and reminds the reader precisely why we aren’t more familiar with them.

At the beginning, Low proposes that simply being a woman resulted in, and continues to result in, constraints on greater access and recognition in the study and conservation of wild birds. “In my travels I met women who, initially, with little help but with sheer determination, all founded remarkable organizations,” she writes by email, referring to the contemporary subjects of the book. She could be speaking of the historical subjects, too; they are all women who persisted in the study of birds despite the times in which they lived.

The book is divided into two parts: “Female Heroes of the Past” and “Present-day Female Heroes.” Because her book covers women across several centuries, Low’s definition of wild bird conservation includes a variety of approaches that may differ from what readers consider “conservation” today: captive breeding, reintroduction, combating illegal wildlife trade, conservation work in zoos, environmental writing and communication, and field work and habitat preservation.

Yet the challenges faced by a woman, no matter her era, are often the same. These include barriers to participation in conservation field work in a male-dominated culture, often with the excuse of concern for a woman’s safety; disparity in pay and recognition; expectations of caregiving to extended family over her career, even when not a mother; and the delay of a career altogether under pressure to start a family. One of the most poignant quotes in the book is from Natalia Luchetti, a contemporary Brazilian taxonomist, who describes her resistance to the expectation that she capitulate to domesticity and family planning the minute she was married. “I met my ex-husband in biology graduation, so it was expected that he would understand my work, but no.” She was married and divorced within a year. “It was a hard decision at that time, but today I see it was the best thing I did,” she writes.

My particular interest was Low’s focus on select women working today, many of them advocating for the birds in the countries where they live. Low had the advantage of primary source access as she developed a network from her own years of writing about and researching parrots. “Of the 19 contemporary subjects to whom I devoted a chapter, I had met, or I knew 13 of these remarkable women,'' she says. Low’s chapters on them include original quotes and her primary observation of their respective projects, adding an element of personal narrative less present in the more historic first half of the book, which relies on secondary sources.

Kilma Manso Raimundo da Rocha and Sara Ines Lara are two examples of women active in wild bird conservation, working in Brazil and Colombia, respectively. Both Gen Xers, they are young enough to be new names to many readers and old enough to have established meaningful legacies in bird conservation before the era of social media introduced a less considered understanding of effective conservation effort, according to Low. Today’s era of legitimacy based on social media followers or internet searchability leaves behind the efforts of some of these women doing important work. While Lara’s work for Colombia’s bird conservation organization, ProAves, is widely visible in English on the internet and social media, Manso’s name comes up only in Portuguese-language publications. Low’s inclusion of her and others less visible online fills a valuable vacuum in recognition for their work in bird conservation.

Readers of social and environmental history, plus anyone else curious to meet contemporary women in the field of bird conservation, will enjoy reading this book. The sheer will and drive exhibited by the subjects will inspire follow-up reading on the women featured in the book as it did with me. And the examples in fortitude can inspire younger generations toward science and conservation. Low herself says, “I hope my book will inspire even more females in this vitally important sphere to realize what an important contribution they can make.” This reader hopes so too.


Bryony Angell writes about birding culture for both mainstream and birding media including Audubon.org, BWD (formerly Bird Watcher’s Digest), Rova, and She Explores. Her work highlights the human side of the birding world, in particular the voices of women. Bryony lives with her family in the northwest corner of the contiguous United States. You can read more at her website: bryonyangell.com.