An Allegation of Sexual Assault Sends Shock Waves Through the Birding World

An Atlanta writer says she was raped by a prominent birder late last year.

Content warning: The following news story includes a description of an alleged rape.

The birding community is reeling after an Atlanta woman published a blog post that includes a detailed allegation of rape against a prominent birder. While the birder himself has so far been silent, the reaction elsewhere has been swift. Multiple organizations, including the American Bird Conservancy, his most recent employer, and the National Audubon Society severed ties with him on Tuesday.

The post, written by Aisha White, a digital marketer and freelance writer who took up birding last year, does not directly name her assailant. But White later identified him as Jason Ward, a well-known birder with a significant following who has been celebrated for bringing the hobby to a more diverse audience. He hosted a popular television documentary series about birding, has tens of thousands of followers on social media, and is frequently a guest expert for publications and websites, including Audubon. White’s account refers to a post that Ward wrote for this website: “To borrow a quote from a blog he wrote, ‘One black person’s paradise can be another one’s terror,’” White writes. “He proved that to be true.”

White declined to comment for this article, referring Audubon to her existing public statements. Ward, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, has an active social media presence but has made no mention of the accusations. No charges have been brought against Ward, but White says she has notified police. The police department in Sandy Springs, Georgia, confirmed to Audubon that an Aisha White whose age matches the blogger’s filed a report of sexual assault in December, but police declined to provide further details. 

In the post, White describes turning to time outdoors last summer as a respite from news of racial violence, the ongoing pandemic, and watching family members suffer from COVID-19. On social media she followed the Black Birders Week initiative that celebrated diversity in birding and science, an event that was launched in response to a racist incident involving a birder in Central Park. She soon learned that Ward—a facilitator of Black Birders Week—was hosting bird walks through Georgia Audubon (a chapter affiliated with National Audubon) in an Atlanta park. So White signed up. 

White says that, after the outing, she received messages from the walk leader, including some that she posted as screenshots in the blog post. The two continued to go birding together. White writes that she felt increased well-being from spending time focused so intently on birds and nature. “Although this natural world has always surrounded me, the details were what I was missing,” she writes. “Enter: birding. When I spent time birding, he invited me to see the details.” 

Eventually, she says, she and Ward began dating, though White writes that she repeatedly said she wanted to abstain from sex. While birding in a park on November 27, White says, Ward pulled down her leggings, despite her efforts to stop him and her past refusals to engage in sexual activity with him. She says he then threw her against a tree and raped her. 

Whites account says that she and her alleged assailant went birding at several parks on the day of the incident. An online checklist from the community-science birding app eBird indicates that Ward and White birded together on November 27. 

Whites post reports that she was in severe physical pain for days after the alleged assault. The post also includes a photograph of paperwork apparently from an Atlanta physician dated December 4 showing that she complained of pain. In the field marked “diagnosis,” the document refers to “sexual assault of adult.” In her post, White also includes an image of a text that she says she received from the assailant the morning after the assault. “I’m ashamed and mortified because my actions hurt someone I really care about,” the text says. 

In the post, White also discusses the mental suffering she experienced since the alleged assault. “Weekends had been what I looked forward to because I had time to explore trails,” she writes. “Now I second-guess going to nearby parks alone. Even though I was raped when I was accompanied by someone I trusted, the idea of spending time in nature alone still worries me.” 

After the blog post was shared widely on Monday via Twitter, White published a GoFundMe page on Tuesday to raise money to cover what she describes as legal fees she will incur if she takes legal action against her assailant, who she names as Ward. She said, though, that she has not yet found a lawyer to take her case. 

To the extent that there’s such a thing as a celebrity birder, Ward has been one of the biggest in recent years. He rose to prominence on Twitter, where he created the popular #TrickyBirdID quiz game. In 2019, he began hosting the documentary series “Birds of North America,” and has since become the face of a more diverse birding community in numerous news stories and across social media. In 2020, he was included in the Grist 50, and just this month, he was featured in a national Nissan commercial.

The close-knit birding community on Twitter expressed shock, anger, and a sense of betrayal over the alleged behavior by one of its most popular figures. “This is alarming, saddening, triggering, and such a deep violation that damages the soul unlike any other other [sic] kind of violation,” tweeted Corina Newsome, community engagement manager for Georgia Audubon and an organizer of Black Birders Week. “Feeling unsafe in isolated areas is what keeps many people from birding,” Nick Lund, who writes about birding for this site and others, tweeted: “That a leader in this community would take advantage of that isolation to commit this act—to validate the exact fear he worked to dissuade—is an incredible betrayal. I am sad and angry.”

The American Bird Conservancy, where Ward became chief diversity officer in November, said in a statement that Ward is no longer employed by the organization as of Tuesday. “We at American Bird Conservancy are shocked and saddened by the news of Jason Ward's misconduct, which is completely incompatible with our values,” the group said in response to White’s accusation.

Georgia Audubon, where Ward led bird outings, said in a statement that it was “stunned and horrified” by White’s account. “The accused is not now and has never been an employee of Georgia Audubon. We have taken immediate steps to terminate our contract with him and will be cancelling upcoming field trips led by this individual.” Ward also led outings for Alabama Audubon, which said Tuesday that it “is aware of serious allegations involving one of our collaborators, and we have decided to sever ties with this individual indefinitely.”

From 2019 to 2020, Ward also had an affiliation with the National Audubon Society as an apprentice based out of Atlanta. The organization issued a statement Tuesday saying it had learned about the allegations. “Based on the blog post, we have ended our relationship with him immediately and permanently,” the statement said. “Audubon will not tolerate any conduct that is inconsistent with the law or with the higher standard of our organization’s values.” 

Nissan also said it had removed a video featuring Ward, adding that the company “does not tolerate improper behavior of any kind and is fully committed to maintaining a work environment and business relationships consistent with those policies.” After the publicaion of this story, Grist said on Thursday that it had removed Ward from its list and will no longer feature him in its Grist 50 network.

The Twitter account @BlackAFinSTEM, created along with Black Birders Week to build a community of Black scientists, also tweeted: “BlackAFinSTEM has been made aware of the allegations involving a member. In accordance with our mission and values, we have separated from the individual indefinitely.” A follow-up tweet from that account identified Ward by name.

On Wednesday morning, White tweeted her support of the movement that Ward was associated with. “My hope is that the actions of Jason Ward do not overshadow the good, important work of the science communication community or efforts of the Black women who co-organized #BlackBirdersWeek,” she wrote. “There are brilliant, powerful women at the heart of the STEM community along with men who choose to act as allies.”

Reporting by Andy McGlashen, Andrew Del-Colle, and Xian Chiang-Waren

This is a developing story that will be updated as more information is released.