Nicole Jackson, environmental educator. @wildlifegirl09. Photo courtesy of Ms. Jackson.
Amber Wendler, PhD student, Virginia Tech. @amberwendler. Photo courtesy of Ms. Wendler. Previous Next The Cooper incident wasn’t unusual; Black birders often feel unwelcome
“I think it’s important for us to discuss it specifically in the birding community, because there are so many places where I think we [as Black birders] are vulnerable and perhaps feel unwelcome,” Cooper said during the June 4 livestream.
Deja Perkins, a graduate student at North Carolina State University studying urban ecology, said she’s been followed while doing her fieldwork: “I’ve had an individual come outside with her dog and follow me around. I’ve had the cops sit across the street. I don’t want to have to rush to get done with my fieldwork. No one should feel like they can’t do their job because of the color of their skin.”
Jeffrey Ward, a Black Birders Week cofounder, recounted another uneasy experience searching for Grasshopper Sparrows in the countryside in Georgia: “We stopped at a fast food restaurant, and a pickup truck swerved in front of me and rolled down the window, and [they] screamed, ‘Jesus isn’t Black!’ So, I wouldn’t go there alone.”
Happy places are essential
Tykee James told CNN this week, birdwatching is a source of joy in a world that is often painful. “When I’m in [a] cynical mindset,” he said, “The only thing that gets me out is the joy and unapologetic strength and style of Black birders.”
During livestream discussions, panelists took turns describing their own personal happy places, and the list of special birding spots spanned the nation. Sheridan Alford, a graduate student in natural resources at the University of Georgia, said she favors “a porch in the Appalachian Mountains, [where] miraculously all the birds fly by, red and purple, in a beautiful rainbow.”
And for wildlife biologist Danielle Belleny, it’s birding near Tucson, Arizona, “seeing hummingbirds, and maybe an Elegant Trogon or two.”
Please don’t dismiss talk about the Black birding experience as “political”
On social media, one of the most frequent objections to #BlackBirdersWeek was the suggestion that birding should not be politicized and that white birders don’t “see color.” To such posts, Alford replies: “I think putting that [political] label on it is dismissive and putting a blanket over it, because you don’t want to see it anymore. ‘Political’ is just a cop-out.”
“They’re rejecting my humanity,” said Corina Newsome, who studies Seaside Sparrows at Georgia Southern University. “When they tell me something is too political, the chasm between their experiences and mine … can result in misunderstanding. I want to bring my humanity into the conversation.”
The big idea behind #BlackBirdersWeek was representing Black birders within the broader birding community, said event co-organizer Juita Martinez, a PhD student at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette who studies Brown Pelicans.
“BlackBirdersWeek really aims to create a space where Black people can be visible, and to let everyone out there know that there are systematic barriers, especially racism, that can prevent Black people from utilizing these spaces and enjoying birds, like everyone else who isn’t Black might be enjoying them,” says Martinez. “We hope that this event will start a movement to change that narrative.”
On the social media meetups, there was also lots of talk about how people can support Black birders. Alford offered this advice: “If you see a Black person or a person of color… and you consider yourself an ally, try to make [them] comfortable. Go talk to them. Not with the condescending tone of ‘Why are you here?’ But start with something like, ‘What’s the last cool bird you’ve seen?’ Just an icebreaker.”
Cooper said the best way forward for birders is to “help each other out, regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation. The birds don’t care. Why should we?”
This article was published in 2020. In 2021, the text was edited to remove mention of a prominent birder after serious allegations of sexual assault came to light.