Black Birders Call Out Racism, Say Nature Should Be For Everyone

While Christian Cooper was bird-watching in Central Park last month, he asked a pet owner to put a leash on her dog, as required by park rules. When she declined, Cooper began filming. The video, which went viral, shows the owner, Amy Cooper, who is white, calling 911 and saying, “There’s an man, African-American… threatening me and my dog.”

The scene captured was all too familiar to other black birders, outdoor enthusiasts and researchers who do fieldwork. Several of them shared their own experiences in a group chat, and economist Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman suggested finding a way to celebrate black birders. Two days of intensive organizing later, the group BlackAFinSTEM launched the first Black Birders Week. “For far too long, black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities such as birding are not for us—whether it be because of the way the media chooses to present who is the ‘outdoorsy’ type or the racism experienced by black people when we do explore the outdoors, as we saw recently in Central Park,” said co-organizer Corina Newsome, a birder and graduate student focusing on avian conservation at Georgia Southern University, in a video announcement. “Well, we’ve decided to change that narrative.”

In Twitter posts using the hashtags #BlackinNature and #AskaBlackBirder and livestreamed discussions, participants have highlighted the joy they take in nature, the scientific work they do, the racism they have experienced, and the reasons why these spaces need to be more diverse and inclusive. Scientific American spoke with Newsome and two of her fellow co-organizers—Deja Perkins, a birder and graduate student in urban ecology at North Carolina State University, and birder and podcaster Tykee James—about the event  and their own love of nature and personal experiences.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What first sparked your interest in birding and in science and nature in general?

PERKINS: My mom has always really supported my interest in wildlife and the environment and animals from a very young age. I grew up in the inner city of Chicago, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities for me to go outside and explore. But she was really vital in finding the few programs that actually provided spaces for minorities to be involved in nature. After that—it wasn’t until I did my first internship with the Student Conservation Association, as a part of their career discovery internship program—I was placed at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and I was a visitor services intern. The Minnesota Valley is a huge migratory hotspot, and so I was able to see all these birds that I had never seen before—just being able to see birds every day at the bird feeders, engage with people, walk around and see either fallen nests or feathers, and bring them back to the [refuge’s visitor] center to ID them and talk with people about them. And I’ve been hooked on that ever since.

JAMES: My interest in nature came from my first job right out of high school, where I was an environmental educator in West Philadelphia. That program was managed by Tony Croasdale and others, and Tony, to this day, is my best friend. We have a podcast together called Brothers in Birding, where we talk about that—my origin story, his origin story, what we’re thinking about in birding today. But the first assignment I got when I started as an environmental educator was understanding and studying the kingfisher. I got my Sibley’s [Birding Basics], I got my Peterson [Field] Guide, I went on audubon.org and checked out everything I could about the kingfisher. The next time I was at work, it was present. The moment of seeing this belted kingfisher on the tip of a cattail, doing its call, swooping across the creek—and being so present in that moment—made me realize that I can actually enjoy my job. I get to explore and appreciate and engage with nature in a way that I just haven’t before.

NEWSOME: Wildlife was always an interest of mine, even as a child. My introduction to wildlife sciences such as conservation came when a black woman (Michelle Jamison, who was a zookeeper at the Philadelphia Zoo) reached out to me and invited me to see what she does behind the scenes and to do an internship. I both got exposure to what kinds of career fields are possible and saw a reflection of myself in that field. When it comes to birds, specifically, I went to Malone University, and my degree from there is in zoo and wildlife biology, which requires lots of different field classes, [including] ornithology. I actually was very much dreading that class. I’d known a lot about exotic species because I worked at the zoo, but I didn’t know any native species. On the first day of our lab class, my professor, Jason Courter, was introducing us to the 10 most common birds in northeastern Ohio, where I was going to school. And the blue jay popped up, and I was like, “That’s a blue jay?!” I couldn’t believe it; I didn’t even know that I’d never seen a blue jay until that moment. And after that, I was just absolutely obsessed with birds.

Deja Perkins, another Black Birders Week co-organizer, is a graduate student studying urban bird ecology at North Carolina State University. Credit: Deja Perkins

What is your favorite bird species you’ve spotted or your favorite experience in nature?

PERKINS: My favorite species that I have seen this year is a tie between the indigo bunting and the common yellowthroat, because it’s my first time actually experiencing spring migration and getting to see the birds that aren’t here all year round. It’s been really exciting. They’re just these really brightly colored birds that you wouldn’t expect to find, especially in urban areas.

JAMES: My top-three favorite birds: The northern cardinal—male or female plumage—in the dead of winter, no leaves on the trees, dark bark with snowy white background. I breathe that experience in every opportunity I get it. My second favorite—not in any particular order—is the belted kingfisher, female in particular. That’s my gateway bird, as Corina says. And then the third one is the green jay. The green jay is a bird not often seen in the U.S. [because its range is primarily in Central and South America], but it was seen by me in McAllen, Tex., a couple of years ago. I was at a Focus on Diversity Conference, and it was the end of the bird tour part of it, and we’re like, “Well, I guess we’re not gonna see the green jay.” And then it just came down, perfectly perched, maybe 20 feet away from me. And it was just so vibrant—to see the wings, the flapping. And it was maybe a brief moment in real life, but it felt like I was just—again, like the kingfisher—I felt so present when I saw it. Definitely a top birding experience. And a bird I want to add as a caveat: the ruddy turnstone. I think that bird looks really cool.

NEWSOME: My favorite bird is the blue jay. And that’s out of loyalty, because they were my gateway bird. But they’re also just phenomenal. They’re really good at mimicry. One time I was at a [bird] feeder at a professor’s house, and I heard a red-shouldered hawk in a tree nearby. And my professor was like, “That’s a blue jay, by the way.” I was like, “What?” And she was like, “Yeah, they make that sound. All the little birds fly away from the feeder, and then the blue jays come down and eat the food at the feeder.” And I was like, “What?!” And that’s when I really was just like, “Okay, blue jays are the GOAT [greatest of all time] of the bird world.”

Can you talk a little bit about the scientific or conservation work you do?

PERKINS: Currently I study social ecological systems—humans and nature in cities and how they interact with each other. My current project is looking at two popular citizen science data-collection methods and trying to determine if they are able to equally detect the social inequity in cities. I’m basically looking at where birds are being reported in the city and if there are any blind spots—and what that means for the broader context of society: Are we equally distributing resources in the city? And why not, if we aren’t? And how might we able to fix that?

JAMES: I am the government affairs coordinator at the National Audubon Society, where my special duty, so to speak, is organizing bird walks with members of Congress and congressional staff. Before I broke my ankle in January, I was doing monthly bird walks on Capitol Hill with congressional staff. In fact, there’s one congressional staffer from [the office of Representative Joe Morelle of New York State] who marks herself as a birder from going to these birding events.* I don’t do these to lobby; I don’t do these to lecture. I just do these to enjoy birds.

NEWSOME: My study system is the seaside sparrow, which is a bird that lives on the coast of the U.S., but I’m specifically studying the Georgia coast. The question I’m trying to answer is understanding how the threat of nest predation varies across their breeding habitat, because they are in a very unfortunate situation with climate change. When they build their nest, they build it in the marsh grass at a certain height off the ground to avoid flooding. But if they build it too high, they are more exposed to predators. The problem is that when they lose a nest to flooding, their behavioral response is to then build a new nest—but build it higher off the ground, which then exposes them to predation. I’m trying to understand the predation side of this issue, because nest flooding is expected to increase as sea-level rise increases. Wildlife managers have to be able to kind of think creatively, as far as “How do we protect populations of seaside sparrows?” And one of the ways to do that is to control predator access to their breeding area. And that’s why knowing the areas that are most subject to predation can be helpful information.

Black Birders Week co-organizer Tykee James is government affairs coordinator at the National Audubon Society and leads birding walks for congressional staffers. Credit: Tykee James

What is the message you hoped to send during Black Birders Week? And what responses have you seen?

PERKINS: So far I think that everything that we’ve been seeing has been really positive. Our Black in Nature day—where black people were posting pictures of being in nature or working in their respective fields—it just really emphasized that there are a lot of us out there and that we exist—which is something that you may not know, because there may not be a lot of us in one single area. So a lot of times we feel isolated and alone, and we could potentially feel like we don’t belong or that we’re the only one. It’s just been very exciting and empowering to me.

JAMES: I think black birders week has really meant so much joy to people. It has brought not just a lot of education, but I think it also presents the reality that the black experience is a lot more dynamic. And when confronted with challenge, our resilience will show, and our community will build, and we can be the rising tide that will lift all ships here. And I think it’s very important that people see and understand that racism is a direct threat to environmental progress. If you are an institution that prides itself on diversity, equity or inclusion, but you don’t address anti-black racism or you don’t address how, as an institution, you may perpetuate white supremacy, then I think your organization’s longevity is at stake. Because all these folks that are organizing this now, those are the folks that are going to be leading these organizations here in a couple of years. This is also about changing the face of conservation and not just changing the topic.

NEWSOME: It’s kind of twofold. The thing I want for black people is for black people to see that this space is, in fact, for us—and to see that they’re not alone. Because in real life, I’m the only black birder in my space. But the power of the Internet is that you can quickly be looped into a whole community of people just by searching a hashtag. That is so powerful: just seeing yourself represented. And even on the first day, when we did the Black in Nature hashtag, I was in my room crying, because I didn’t realize there were this many black birders. I was just so encouraged.

My other hope is that white people in this space—who make up the vast majority, like more than 90 percent in birding, specifically—is that there has to be a change of culture, because a lot of times in wildlife sciences, neutrality is a standard when it comes to issues of social justice. But neutrality is exclusion for the people who a lack of social justice affects on a daily basis. The comments that we’ve been seeing from people who are opposed to what we’ve been doing are like, “Why are you bringing race into this?” And it’s like: Race is my experience 100 percent of my life. And if you’re telling me that my existence, my identity, is being political, this is not a space for me. Neutrality only serves to perpetuate white supremacy—that’s all it does—and exclude people, black people and other people of color. I really want people to recognize that neutrality is not an option if you want to have a diverse field, which is important not just for the people who’ve been excluded but for the health and the strength of the field itself.

What are some things nature-focused groups and the individuals within them could do to support more diversity and inclusion?

PERKINS: I think a great start would be for a lot of these big organizations, with power and influence and money, to either be able to start some type of fund and or at least save space for individuals who may want to learn about these things. Because I think a lot of it is: if you aren’t exposed to something, you don’t know about it, and you don’t know that it’s a viable option. So I think it would be really helpful if they were to save spaces—or maybe provide discounted rates or something—to make sure that our participation is actually possible, easing the burden to make it more accessible.

On an individual basis, I think a lot of it has to do with being comfortable with talking and being open to hearing about other people’s experiences—being willing to listen and not interject what you think is the experience of other people. Oftentimes I feel excluded in the birding community, not only because I’m black but also because I’m younger. This is my first year being a birder. And something that I think is cool, that I’ve seen for the first time, but somebody else thinks [it] is common, and then they dismiss it—it’s really discouraging to somebody who wants to be a part of a space. It’s really easy to diminish somebody’s spark. It’s harder to help it burn bright.

JAMES: I think that there needs to be a foundational understanding of racism in this society—that the racist incident that occurred to Chris Cooper is connected to what killed Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and Trayvon Martin. It’s not because they were black but because they live in a racist, anti-black system. And if there’s anything to address that, it’s going to have to start by letting people know that that exists. And you may not be a personal racist. But how close are you to becoming the next Amy Cooper? You’re ready to ask us, BlackAFinSTEM, “What can we be doing right?” But nobody’s really ready for “What can you stop doing wrong?” I think that conversation needs to happen to get that understanding about racism in this society, as well as our institutions that we put so much faith in. Find out what their place is and how they have been complacent, how they have been perpetuating—and then work down to deconstruct those things.

NEWSOME: I think that organizations that are centered on outdoor exploration or science need to not just submit a statement and say, “This is where we stand.” That is important, and they all need to do that, saying they’re declaring their support for people who have been oppressed. But then they need to be a platform that amplifies those voices. If you’re an organization, you need to be inviting people who are not white. You need to be inviting black people to share their perspective and experience with your audience. People need to hear it directly from the source, because it’s easy to for people to disregard ideas or concepts and to choose to keep the veil of their white supremacy over their eyes. But when you are looking at another human being in their eyes, and they’re telling you, “This is what happens to me; this is my story; this is what I need you to do,”then it’s more likely, in my opinion, that you will have success at changing the culture.

I want people to start changing the culture of their space. So especially: white people who are around lots of other white people, encourage the people in your space. And then hold them accountable to condemning racism, acknowledging the experience of other people who are not like you. And make seeing black people in nature a thing that you’re used to, because I think if I am surprised when I see a black person, I know that white people are surprised to see a black person outside. But oftentimes that surprise can be paired with negative emotions and negative reflexes about safety and things like that. We want to normalize the image of black people being outdoors people—because we are.

*Editor’s Note (6/5/20): This sentence has been edited after posting to correct the reference to Representative Joe Morelle.

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