Editor's Note: After learning about serious allegations against Jason Ward, the National Audubon Society has severed its ties with him.
For the past week, Black birders, scientists, and nature lovers have flooded Twitter with their own stories. As part of the inaugural “Black Birders Week,” they've introduced the world to their work and passions, posting about their experiences outdoors and sharing everything from the joy it brings them to the racism they encounter in the field and their daily lives.
The social media campaign was created by a collective of 30 Black scientists and naturalists, called BlackAFinSTEM, in response to the recent racist incident in Central Park between a Black birder, Christian Cooper, and Amy Cooper, an unrelated white woman. After the video went viral, BlackAFinSTEM organized Black Birders Week, dedicating different days to hashtagged themes, such as #BlackInNature on Sunday and the #PostABirdChallenge on Monday. To round off the event, #BlackWomenWhoBird are taking the spotlight on Friday to make their presence known.
“The visibility of Black women who bird is really not out there,” says Deja Perkins, a conservation biology graduate student at North Carolina State University and co-organizer of Black Birders Week. “We don't really see representation of ourselves in this activity, so I think it's really important for us to highlight that women are out here birding. And this is an activity that we would like other Black women to join in on.”
Perkins, who has always loved wildlife, first became interested in birdwatching during an internship at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is a migratory hotspot, so she figured the best way to connect with visitors was over birds—especially birds of prey, such as the juvenile Cooper’s Hawks that used the refuge’s bird feeders for easy songbird meals. Yet it wasn’t until this year that she started recording the species she sees and considering herself a birder. She has made up for lost time, however, helping to organize Black Birders Week as a member of BlackAFinSTEM, which started as a group chat more than a year ago on the app GroupMe.
I woke up READY TO GO! It's #BlackWomenWhoBird day and y'all I already found a bird!!!— Kassandra Ford - Quarantining Cat Mom (@kassthefish) June 5, 2020
Here's an adorable Red-headed Woodpecker for your morning! ❤️🖤❤️🖤
For all things birdy on this final day of #BlackBirdersWeek, follow @BlackAFinSTEM & our members! pic.twitter.com/6oVkK3mtIq
The week-long initiative has brought together members of the Black birding community from across the country—including those who didn’t even realize there was a Black birding community. “Seeing other Black people who love birding, I didn't think that this would ever happen,” says Joelle Jenkins, a senior at the University of Northern Colorado majoring in environmental and sustainability studies. Before she switched to her current major, Jenkins was the only Black woman in her college’s ecology department and she knew few Black birders. “The fact that it's happening so quick, and I'm 22, is great,” she says.
Baiyinah Abdullah, a high school biology teacher based in Texas, has had a similar experience. Abdullah is always the only hijabi woman in her science and birding circles, she says. For Black Birders Week, she posted a picture of herself holding a Downy Woodpecker. Another woman, Jameela Jafri, responded that she had never met another Black hijabi birder in her 20 years of birding before Abdullah’s post, adding, “I am so grateful to #BlackBirdersWeek for elevating Black voices and profiles.”
Legit, I’ve been a hijabi birder for over 20 years and this is the first time I’ve met a Black hijabi birder. I am so grateful to #BlackBirdersWeek for elevating Black voices and profiles. I just want to go birding with these amazing people. Right. Now. https://t.co/vPjt9g43LT— Jameela Jafri (@JameelaJafri) June 2, 2020
The week-long event has been wildly successful in elevating the voices of Black birders, but the campaign also tackles the hard truths of anti-Black racism. “Black Birders Week is not just to amplify and celebrate Black birders in outdoor spaces,” says Danielle Belleny, a co-organizer and wildlife biologist. “It came about in response to that incident with Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper in Central Park.” Black Birders Week is also influenced by the protests against police brutality toward Black people and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others. “It definitely pushed us to be more vocal about what it's like to experience racism while we're outdoors,” Belleny says. And, Abdullah adds, even Black birders who don’t experience racist attacks still must contend with systemic racism, particularly in the sciences.
Black women and men, however, experience oppression in different ways. Some activists have recently pointed out that the recent killing of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was shot in her home in March by police officers, has not received the same level of national attention as other high-profile deaths. “Sometimes there's a lot of momentum around what happens with Black men. But we need to be careful not to forget Black women,” Belleny says. In the field, Black women can also experience bias because of their sex. “Lines, personally, for me, blur between what it's like being a Black person experiencing racism and then also experiencing sexism on top of that,” Belleny says. Older white male birders have doubted her IDs, she says, and she has even been followed on nature trials. These moments can be frustrating and scary, but Bellany says she won’t let them deter her from her passion. “I'm not going to allow the projections of ignorant or racist people to prevent me from doing that."
Another goal of Black Birders Week is busting stereotypes, such as that Black people don’t enjoy nature. An online presence isn’t just about representation, but it can also help lonely birders find companions off screen. That’s what happened to Ashley Gary, a co-organizer and science communicator. Gary has loved birding ever since she watched the David Attenborough documentary series “Life of Birds” about 13 years ago when she was in college. Her friends, however, aren’t into the sport. So, until 2019, birding was a solo activity for Gary. Then she took to Twitter and met Jason Ward, a Black birder, co-organizer of Black Birders Week and host of the Topic show Birds of North America, and Tyus Williams, another prominent Black birder on social media. They met up in real life for a nature walk, and it was a transformative experience. “Going birding with a group of people, especially a group of Black friends, it changed my whole view of birding,” Gary says.
Gary joined BlackAFinSTEM shortly thereafter. “It might sound like an exaggeration, but I have such a sense of pride being a part of this group,” she says. “There are moments that honestly have brought tears to my eyes because I didn't know any type of community like this before. I am 31 years old, and it wasn't until I was 30 that I saw any other Black people who really love animals.”
Some Black women who have shared their stories this week are trying to make sure younger generations never have to feel this loneliness in nature. Chidi Paige, a STEM educator and founder of the bird-themed game company Birdwiser, is on this path. For seven years, she led a team of minority students in an international birding competition. Now, she is instilling the same love for birds and nature in her 3-year-old daughter. The budding birder can already identify 10 birds, and she can recognize Blue Jays and Cardinals by their call alone. “To see [a love of nature] in my daughter and to see it in other youth I have led in the past, it’s very fulfilling,” Paige says.
Though she often doesn’t mind being the only Black birder around, she appreciates the community that Black Birders Week has cultivated. “It’s hard to process all the things going on, especially as a mother who has a kid that’s growing up in all of this,” she says.“But having this one week where the community is saying to Black birders and birders of color that we see you, we hear you, we know you're part of this community, you are included . . . it's really, really powerful.”