Second Annual Black Birders Week Celebrates Black Joy in Birding, Ornithology, and Conservation
Story and video by Adé Ben-Salahuddin
June 21, 2021
Ph.D candidate Juita Martinez sat on the porch overlooking her Louisiana backyard, virtually chatting with fellow birder Deja Perkins and the hundred or so people who had tuned in to watch the Instagram livestream event Backyard Bird Feeders & Photography, part of the third day of Black Birders Week 2021. The video feed had crashed minutes earlier, but the enthusiasm on the livestream wasn’t dampened when Martinez returned.
Over her shoulder, a White-winged Dove and a Blue Jay sized each other up at the series of platform and tube feeders in Martinez’s backyard. As she turned the camera and herself around for a closer view, she joked about her long black hair getting caught on the plants behind her.
“Long hair don’t care, we love it!” Perkins responded with a smile before Martinez launched into her tips for bountiful bird feeding on a grad student budget.
Throughout the second annual Black Birders Week from May 30 to June 5, a series of over 20 social media events shared the enjoyment and unpredictability of birdwatching—and along the way strengthened a growing online community of diverse nature enthusiasts from across the country. The original Black Birders Week last May started as a hashtag movement that spontaneously launched a series of social media events in the wake of the viral online video shot by Christian Cooper when he documented his racial harrassment incident in New York City’s Central Park. The first Black Birders Week involved all levels of bird watchers—from casual hobbyists to professional ornithologists and conservationists—sharing their experiences in the field, both positive and negative. It spawned a series of other hashtag movements in other science fields, such as #BlackInAstro, #BlackInNeuro, #BlackInMicro, and even a #BlackHerpersWeek and #BlackMammalogistsWeek.
“We really just wanted everybody to know what Black birders face,” said Chelsea Connor, a coorganizer of Black Birders Week, herpetologist, and incoming PhD student at Clemson University. “The type of discrimination that we face just trying to be outside birding in the park, or other naturalists in the field […] when really we’re just trying to either do work or just enjoy the outdoors like everybody has the right to.”
Since 2020, Black Birders Week has drawn attention to and celebrated the roles of Black biologists and nature educators in the outdoors. This video features reflections from several Black Birders Week organizers and participants.
[Juita Martinez] I’ve actually seen a Mississippi Kite go after an anole in my yard once and I was shocked, like floored when I saw it, and was like, is that a thing?
[Deja Perkins] Wow.
[upbeat music][Juita Martinez] they’ll catch them in air and eat them in the air. Like, OK!
[Onscreen text] Two Years of Black Birders Week: Reflections from participants and organizers
[Onscreen text] How did Black Birders Week begin? [music fades out]
[Sheridan Alford, environmental educator] It started literally just as a group meet, and people would just add their friends who were in STEM and Black, and it just grew into kind of like a group of everybody. And we would just talk about whatever, it’s like a safe space, and we had a lot of fun. And then the Christian Cooper situation happened, and of course it was just a topic of discussion at the time, but someone, Anna to be specific (Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, activist and writer), she was like “Yo, we should do like a day”—I think it started out as a day to commemorate, or just showcase, that Black people are outdoors and we do bird.
[Chelsea Connor, herpetologist] There was a lot to say, and a lot to do and talk about, and we couldn’t fit that all into one day. So we made it a week and we really just wanted everybody to know what Black birders, or other naturalists in the field face just trying to be outside when really we’re just trying to either do work or just enjoy the outdoors, like everybody has a right to.
[Roslyn Rivas, wildlife conservation ecologist] I honestly was just so pleasantly surprised at just how many other fellow Black biologists and birders and nature enthusiasts there were out there. I absolutely loved it.
[Onscreen text] How did Black Birders Week grow this year?
[Chelsea Connor] Jumping in to plan this year again was a no-brainer. It’s like, last year it meant so much to a lot of people including myself, and we saw the reach that it had and how much people loved participating, Black people loved participating or seeing people like themselves. So, we wanted to bring that to everybody again. This year we wanted to shift the focus more towards Black joy in nature.
[Sheridan Alford] We really focused on the people that were doing the work, the people that were on the ground. We had a lot of Fish and Wildlife Service personnel like Dr. Mamie Parker. There’s people that have been in it forever, and we really want to show that.
[Examples in onscreen text: Jerome Ford, assistant director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program; Dr. Mamie Parker, award-winning and pioneering wildlife conservationist; Audrey and Frank Peterman, nature educators and outreach activists; Bertrand “Dr. Birdy” Jno. Baptiste, full interview on BlackAFinStem website]
[Sheridan Alford] There have been people doing this before us, like we’re not the only ones, and we’re not the first ones.
[Onscreen text] What was your favorite event this year?
[Sheridan Alford] The Falconer movie, falconer film, was so good! Oh my gosh! We were watching it and I’m pretty sure I said verbatim, like, ‘This is one of the best movies that I’ve seen in a while.’ And that speaks to the actual directors and the, you know, the behind the scenes team, but also you know, Rodneys story was just very moving, and really related with it, so, that was my favorite.
[Nicole Jackson, environmental educator] I want to say there’s a few, but the one that stood out to me was the Safety in Nature. Just like having actual, you know, people, Black people, specifically Black women, studying the subject and giving time and space to that conversation, that’s, I mean, I feel like we talk about it a lot, but, like, actually seeing the research, the numbers, the dialogue, the shared experiences, really put it in perspective of how much of an issue it still is, and to be able to like really hone in on it from a Black perspective was refreshing.
[Chelsea Connor] I think On Their Wings maybe, I just liked hearing from people who have been a naturalist, or a birder for a really long time, how they got into it, why they got into it.
[Danielle Belleny, wildlife biologist] I definitely liked the Birds on My Block event because I finally got the chance to like, blab all the nerdy bird app knowledge that I have and I’ve been meaning to, like, share with folks. So that was really cool. I think I would definitely want to do that again.
[Sheridan Alford] I really liked Bri’s—Brianna Amingwa’s—she did how to make, how to bring birds to your backyard, and give some tips on like your setup and having water features, and all that, native species. So hers was really good too!.They’re just… everybody really just showed out, OK? [laughs] It was great.
[Onscreen text] What is the future of Black Birders Week?
[pensive music] [Nicole Jackson] There’s all of these groups, which is great. They’re still very much predominantly white, but at the same time, knowing that you can connect with somebody in your neighborhood and on your block and say, hey, let’s go for a bird hike, or come together to put like an event, or a cookout, or something, so it’s just like, OK, these are my people. And it doesn’t feel like this, you know, you’re hiding a part of yourself to actually enjoy those things, so I definitely want to see more of that.
[Sheridan Alford] But yeah, so I think a conference would be super cool because we started a movement in a pandemic, so it was all on social media, and a lot of the organizers ourselves, like we’ve never like met in person, a lot of us.
[Danielle Belleny] I would also love for us to like be able to use that leverage and use that opportunity to share and distribute resources to people all over the place, especially in the form of making outdoor activities more accessible to Black people basically.
[Chelsea Connor] Reaching out to younger birders and naturalists and encouraging them to join in and be a part of this field, because we are we are doing this for the future generation as well—raising these issues so that they don’t have to face any of them.
[Roslyn Rivas] I feel like I really would just love to see anyone who is interested in nature at all or science at all, being able to find this network, and being involved in any capacity, like if you want to attend events or just simply take some pictures and post on social media. And be like ‘yeah, look at me, I’m just enjoying my Black self in nature.’
[pensive music fades away] [lively music begins] [Juita Martinez] This one is still trying, it’s still trying to get on those tube feeders, and those tube feeders are actually too small for it usually to get onto, like I mentioned earlier. So if you’re trying to keep doves away, (use) tube feeders. [White-winged Dove lands on tube feeder] As I say that…
[Deja Perkins] That’s really good to know, right? [laughs] [music ends]
End of Transcript
A year later, Black Birders Week organizers were urged to stage a sequel by popular demand.
“With this year, there’s still very much a continuation of people wanting to connect after Black Birders Week,” said Ohio environmental educator Nicole Jackson, one of the event organizers.
“The focus this year was the celebration of everybody else that’s already out there,” said coorganizer Sheridan Alford, who just earned her master’s degree in Park Recreation and Tourism from the University of Georgia. Alford also spoke on multiple panels and co-hosted a virtual birding event with the aforementioned Perkins.
“We really focused on the people that were doing the work, the people on the ground, a lot of folks from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service like Dr. Mamie Parker, the people that have been in it forever,” Alford said. (A Presidential Rank Award winner, Dr. Parker worked for the USFWS for 30 years and was the first Black woman to serve as assistant director of fisheries and habitat conservation, as well as the first African American to lead a USFWS regional office during her 30-year tenure at the institution.) “We want to show that there have been people doing this before us. We’re not the only ones and we’re not the first ones.”
With Black Birders Week 2021 now in the rearview, the question already being asked of event organizers is, What next? Texas wildlife biologist and event coorganizer Danielle Belleny says she envisions regional birding events and live talks as the world recovers from the pandemic; indeed, many of the people involved in Black Birders Week have never met in-person due to COVID. Regardless of whether it’s in-person or online, she says the enthusiasm and passion will be the same.
“I think every year is going to be a recurring theme of talking about different levels of our blackness and the intersection of our blackness with our other identities, and how that interacts with our ability to enjoy the outdoors,” Belleny says. She highlighted the Thursday #SafeInNature discussion panel as her favorite and most impactful event, particularly as a discussion hosted and led by Black women.
“I think the tone for both years was, ‘We’re having fun, but there’s a serious conversation still to be had,’” she says. “I’m really proud of what we did. It’s going to be bigger and bigger each year, so I’m really excited for what happens next.”
Adé Ben-Salahuddin is an aspiring undergraduate-level evolutionary biologist and freelance science educator whose favorite birds are all extinct (terror birds and moas). You can follow him on Twitter and YouTubefor videos about prehistoric life, the people who study it, and how we talk about it.