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Birding While Black

#BlackBirdersWeek seeks to interrupt stereotypes about who belongs in nature and science.

June 5, 2020
 
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J. Drew Lanham

In the social and political tumult of the last week, it may have been easy to overlook a social media campaign celebrating black naturalists, and black birders in particular. At the same time, recent events have imbued the inaugural Black Birders Week with even more meaning.

“Birds transcend what they are to being who they are. They’re the allegory for so much that’s good,” said J. Drew Lanham, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University and a participant in Black Birders Week.

“Even as my binoculars become heavy and hard to look through with all that’s going on,” he said, “we find inspiration in birds in their freedom, in their struggle to survive and thrive, and in their unfettered ability to breathe, which is obviously not something you can take for granted.”

Lanham’s pointed reference to breath recalls the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25. But just hours before Floyd’s death, another injustice was circulating on social media: a white woman made good on her threat to call the police on a black man who asked her to leash her dog, as required, in an area of New York City’s Central Park. The man -- who turned out to be avid birder Christian Cooper, a board member of the New York City Audubon Society -- videorecorded the incident, including the women’s escalating, performative pleas to 911 that “there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

Both Cooper and the woman left the scene when she finally leashed her dog. No charges were ever filed. But the video was chilling to many who watched it and understood that things could have ended catastrophically for Christian Cooper, had the police or passersby quickly responded with antiblack bias and force. The Central Park altercation followed another racially fraught incident that led to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger in Georgia who was chased and gunned down by white men who assumed he was a burglar.

Interrupting Stereotypes About Who Belongs Outdoors

Cooper’s close encounter with racism, coupled with Arbery’s death, renewed national conversations about the dangers of simply “living while black.” Cooper, for example, had binoculars slung around his neck in a part of Central Park known for its wildlife, but he was nevertheless seen as dangerously out of place.

Many black naturalists could relate. Among them was Corina Newsome, a graduate student in biology at Georgia Southern University who has a large Twitter following under @hood_naturalist. After consulting with friends and colleagues, she posted a video on her social media saying that for “far too long, black people in the U.S. have been shown that outdoor exploration activities are not for us.” From the way the “media chooses to present who is the outdoorsy type,” to the “racism black people experience when we do explore the outdoors,” she said, “we’ve decided to change that narrative.”

Newsome went on to announce #BlackBirdersWeek, which began Sunday with the theme #BlackInNature. The event concludes today, which is dedicated to #BlackWomenWhoBird.

Throughout the week, Newsome and her fellow organizers and participants have been virtually meeting up and sharing experiences about what it’s like be black and love nature and science. She and fellow birders have taken all manner of naturalists and scientists under their wing, as it were, including via a new Twitter account called @BlackAFinSTEM.

Cooper has gotten involved, including in a Facebook Live chat Thursday called “Birding While Black: A Candid Conversation.” The panel-style session hit on a range of topics, from inclusion and equity in conservation efforts to a bit of ornithology humor.

What’s the most “obnoxious, infuriating” bird you've ever encountered, a viewer asked.

“Northern mockingbird,” said birder Jeffrey Ward, to a chorus of knowing chuckles. (Apparently these birds are territorial: prepare to get dive-bombed.)

Cooper’s least favorite bird is the domestic chicken, he said. His late mother lived in Tobago, where a neighbor’s rooster would crow at 2 or 3 a.m. every day that he visited, without fail.

Black Birders Week has the support of the National Audubon Society. Tykee James, its government affairs coordinator, is one of Black Birders Week’s organizers. He said in a statement that “from a social media standpoint, it has been absolutely breathtaking and just so remarkable to see the amount of black faces, to see the regional diversity of black joy across the world -- not just the country even or the continent or hemisphere, but the world.”

‘A Safe Place to Land’

Newsome has said that Black Birders Week has two main goals, beyond interrupting stereotypes about who belongs in the outdoors. They are building awareness for the challenges black birders face in the field, including underrepresentation and overt racism. They're also promoting human diversity in birding and conservation.

Participant Newton Zachary Hood, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine, said via email that he’s been “surprised at the reaction and support from those outside the black community on Twitter.”

As for academe, science, technology, math and engineering departments are “saying the right things” about diversity, he said. Yet “I am waiting to see how they change their hiring practices and how much effort they will place on recruiting a truly diverse pool of graduate students.”

Now is a time “for our white allies to do some self-reflection and ask themselves what they can do to promote and support their black colleagues and students.”

Lanham, of Clemson, has written about his own experiences with racism in the field. While birding has brought him face-to-face with the ugliest of humanity, it’s also where he feels most at home. In an interview, he recalled how, when he was a child, his grandmother fed the birds outside her house with handfuls of grits, and how birds fed his fascination with flight.

As an adult, birds are his job, his hobby and way to understand the world.

“Black people want the same things that anybody else wants -- that’s freedom, that’s choice, that’s the ability to breathe,” he said. As birds symbolize all that, people coming together to celebrate birding is the “silver lining” on the COVID-19 thundercloud, he said.

There are still other clouds, namely racism and political turmoil, Lanham continued. "And we're all trying to navigate our way through, like migratory birds navigate their way through storms to look for a safe place to land. That’s what I hope this week does -- gives us a safe place to land."

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