Black Birders: Proving the Outdoors Are for Everyone
On May 25, 2020, Christian Cooper, was confronted by a white woman and her dog while birdwatching in New York City’s Central Park. After Cooper requested the woman put her dog on a leash, the woman responded by calling the police and filing a false police report. Cooper’s recording of the incident quickly went viral, overlapping with recent incidents of police brutality such as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd (who perished the same day).
American ornithologist, Corina Newsome, responded to the event on twitter by saying, “For far too long, Black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities are not for us.” The response to the tweet by a collective of Black scientists and nature lovers was the first-ever Black Birders Week, a social media event intended to raise awareness of African American participation in outdoor activities and the challenges they face. To call attention to the benefits one of America’s most popular outdoor activities, we spoke to several birdwatching members of the group Black AF In STEM.
How long have you been involved in birding/How old were you when you began? Why did you get started in birding? Why do you continue to participate in birding?
I started birding late last year when I was 25 and I started reevaluating the spaces around me. I think it's really fascinating to think about the lives these animals lead in and around cities like mine, and it's always surprising to see how much diversity exists right down the street or even in your own yard. You don't necessarily need Animal Planet to see some cool wildlife!
I started birding one day when I visited my Granny’s house back home in Dominica. As a child I’d stay with if my parents or older siblings weren’t home. She would always put sugar out for these little passerine birds we call sikiyé, pronounced: see-ki-yay (a.k.a. Bananaquit). They would come into her house and steal the sugar themselves if she didn’t. I was fascinated by them and so while she watched Matlock reruns, I watched the birds eat sugar.
I’ve been interested in birds since high school. I was fascinated with how they flew and came in so many different colors. I started to take classes in college, went on bird walks, and found the birding community all over the world on social media. I continue to bird today because I enjoy introducing new people to how fun birding can be and all the things that you can learn.
I started birding during my senior year in high school because it was part of my first job as an environmental educator in my hometown of Philadelphia. My first lesson as a birder went beyond identifying the birds and the trees, it developed my practice of assessing features of the park like park benches, streetlights, and trash cans to contextualize my community’s relationship to our green spaces. Today I’m still birding with a purpose whether it's with my new neighbors in D.C. or to encourage members of Congress to go birding in their home district.
What have you learned about yourself through birding? What have you learned about the world (nature, others, etc.)? What is special about the moments when you are bird watching?
In birding and in life in general, it's not just sitting and waiting for a big thing to happen; it's noticing what's already going on around you as you set yourself up to be in a position where you'll reach that goal of seeing or experiencing that big thing you want when the opportunity presents itself. There's value in being able to be still and take in the sensations around you; you become more aware of things, and that itself opens a lot of possibilities for discovery and connection. Whether those discoveries are new birds, new people, or new outlets for work and creativity, you'll often find more than you expect.
I’ve learned that I’m resourceful! Able to put things together and piece the puzzle of “What bird is that?” together with the very little I started out with. I’ve also learnt that nature has so much to offer if you are willing to sit and wait. It’s good to stop sometimes and just sit down and look. Birding always feels like coming home and sitting with a warm cup of tea. Getting to see these creatures going about their lives, the food and perches they choose, how different one bird sings from another. I have spots that I revisit because certain birds do, and I get to know them. It feels like seeing a friend again.
I have used bird watching as a great mental health tool to relax and allow myself to process anything that's bothering me. Nature is a great place to safely get out your emotions by either distracting you or allowing you space to think about them. I've learned that everything in nature is connected, including humans when we care about our environment. Bird watching allows you to notice what’s going on around you that you may have missed just traipsing through the woods.
Birding has unlocked my potential to be a leader in my community and provides a constant source of motivation and levity in my life. I learned that everyone has a story about birds whether it’s a Cardinal here on your commute, the Robin greeting you (and the worms) in your garden, or the high soaring hawk that captivates your attention to awe at the movements of nature.
3. How is/should birding being made more accessible and normalized for African Americans and other people of color?
I think one of the big things is for us in our own respective communities to collectively unlearn the notions of "We don't do [x]" and that can start by asking "Why though?" Ultimately, normalization comes through seeing and having more of us in the (literal and figurative) field. Events like Black Birders Week, that amplify the community that already exists, helps in making those of us new to the hobby feel more connected and less alone, at least in spirit if not in-person.
I think Black Birders Week is a great start, but we should also promote and support Black people who express interest in birding and learning about nature. Providing resources to get started as well. Something that is a struggle is finding basic information on birds and learning where you can go. Those things are usually because of gatekeeping. I’ve moved a couple times and my start is always asking people in the area on social media where they like to go and finding easily accessible parks on my own. Green spaces in your city have lots of birds and it’s a great place to start with basic bird species.
Incorporating birding into community programs in majority African American areas would greatly increase the positive exposure to the community. Representation is truly everything and most birding takes place in white or affluent neighborhoods and areas. Showing and sharing my passion with other Black people encourages them to at least consider it as a positive option.
Resources need to be redirected to enable and empower the movements and projects that are being led by and meant to serve Black and Brown people. Policies and practices need to change and be rewritten with Black and Brown people to properly include and raise consciousness of the multiple worlds we live in and to directly remove physical and systemic barriers for full, authentic participation.
4. What are some suggestions you have for someone new to birding?
If you're going to go outside to go birding in a very intentional fashion, morning times are best, generally the earlier the better for most species. You're bound to see plenty of things throughout the day regardless. Ultimately it just depends on your schedule and how you want to manage your time but give yourself as much as you can. If you can afford it, being slow and quiet is also a plus; it will let the birds get used to your presence, and once they see that you're not a threat, even the shy species will go about their lives after a few minutes as if you aren't there at all.
You don’t need anything to start your birding adventure other than an interest in the birds. I didn’t start out with binoculars and sometimes I still go out without them. If you find a good spot, they’ll fly in close enough to be seen. Different birds are active at different times, but I like going around noon or sometime in the afternoon. I’m not a morning person!
Sometimes it can be discouraging (or motivating) to watch people so skillful at birding but remember how much time they’ve had to practice. The more you bird the better you become at identification. Don’t be afraid to just go to a new location and listen, you may not know what it is but that’s completely fine. Use your apps to help you.
When I go birding, I wear comfortable shoes and pants for the weather and expected conditions of the trail. I like birding during times of day when the Metro is in operation so it’s easy for me to get home when I’m done!
The birders we interviewed listed several mobile apps they would recommend for beginners looking to take to their local parks that we have listed below.