Birding takes flight

Interest in birdwatching has soared during the pandemic. FoA talks to Deja Perkins, co-founder of Black Birders Week, about making enjoying the great outdoors more inclusive, and hears from one of the oldest bird clubs in the nation about the thrill of bird counts.

By Nicole Rivard

While in lockdown during the pandemic, I told one of my best friends about a magical nature preserve I discovered near where we live that she could explore with her son. She said she’d wait until we could all go together.

I did not think anything of it until I was listening to Deja Perkins, an urban ecologist and co-founder of #Blackbirdersweek, give an online presentation in December about the origins of the hashtag that launched a movement to address racism in the outdoors.

The racist incident that sparked Black Birders Week happened last Memorial Day, when a white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police on a Black man, Christian Cooper, who is a birder and NYC Audubon board member, in retaliation because he asked her to put her dog on a leash in an area of Central Park home to delicate plants and wildlife, as required by park rules.

The incident, which occurred the same day Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd, alarmed a group of Black science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals and students who share an online space they call #BlackAFinSTEM, and they mobilized to start #BlackBirdersWeek.

Among the virtual events was a two-hour Q&A with Black birders on Twitter, followed by livestream discussions. The goal was to counter the narrative that the outdoors are not a place Black people should be and to educate the birding community about the challenges Black birders face.

“We wanted people to engage with Black birders and scientists so they would really see Black people as a voice of authority in the outdoors,” Perkins explained during the Connecticut Audubon presentation. “Amy did not see Chris as a voice of authority, and she felt she was within her right to threaten his life by calling the cops on him instead of listening to him, not only as an outdoor enthusiast and a Black birder, but also a member of NYC Audubon’s board of directors.”

Another goal was to encourage diversity in birding and conservation. As a graduate student at North Carolina State University, Perkins discovered that societal bias can carry over into data collected through citizen science projects. She found that popular bird counts, for example, let participants choose where they observe birds. Hardcore birders often prioritize finding as many different species as possible each trip, and since birders are also often white, they tend to observe in white communities and avoid communities of color.

“It leads to blind spots where we have more data being submitted in more affluent neighborhoods,” Perkins told Science magazine.

By implementing a citizen science project called the Triangle Bird Count and curating a more random sampling of Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding municipalities in North Carolina, Perkins and her team were able to overcome those data biases.

After Perkins spoke, I texted my friend, who is Black, and she confirmed that she was “actually a little terrified” at the thought of hiking in the affluent neighborhood I suggested, fearing someone might question why she was there simply because she was Black.

My heart sank, thinking about how frightened she must have been for herself and her son given the state of affairs in the country. Since Friends of Animals encourages all its members to enjoy wildlife watching, and since nature is my safe haven, it troubled me that nature isn’t a safe space for everyone. I reached out to Perkins, who earned her master’s degree in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology from North Carolina State University, to delve deeper into her experiences and to find how to make the outdoors, and science, more inclusive.

Can you talk about personally experiencing racism in the field?

While completing my master’s research, I had a woman ask me to leave an area because she didn’t like me doing my study there. So I went across the street to a more public area, and she still followed me with her dog.

More recently, before the presidential election, I wanted to spend a weekend hiking the Blue Ridge Parkway and visiting other local parks like Nantahala National Forest. Upon arrival, I saw Trump flags posted all over the town and at public scenic viewing points, which deterred me from getting out of the car and experiencing the public parks that I drove four hours to see. I know a Trump flag does not automatically mean something will happen to me, but I also know what he stands for and what someone who supports him also probably agrees with, which is enough to make me feel unsafe, especially as a solo traveler. These are the things I think people who are not Black, Indigenous, or people of color have the privilege of not thinking about.

Has there ever been a time you felt like quitting?

I have never wanted to quit the path that I am on because I know that everything I do will make the road easier for any students following in my footsteps. But there have been many times in my career that I have momentarily lost hope. Being a Black woman from a large city, I did not grow up with a lot of the field or work experiences that make you a competitive applicant as a biologist or ecologist. Many internships in the conservation field require you to either pay to participate, or you must be able to live out of a suitcase for six months at a time and be able to pay for housing and provide food for yourself, which is just not realistic for many minority students. However, I think this challenged me to find a new way that I can apply my degrees and experience to make an impact in the field. I believe that the work I am doing now is making a bigger impact, and I still hope that someday I will be able to secure a career as a bird biologist.

Did Black Birders Week accomplish what you wanted it to?

I think we achieved our goal of highlighting the current Black voices in birding. We were able to share our experiences collectively with a huge audience for the first time. We received news coverage from major outlets like CNN, Forbes, Science, and more. Being able to connect with Black bird watchers in other countries was definitely a highlight for me.

Black Birder’s Week 2021 is scheduled for May 30-June 5, and we are really excited for the different partnerships and activities planned for the week.

Were there any immediate effects?

The Free Binoculars for Black Birders campaign provided binoculars to anyone who identified as Black and wanted a pair of binoculars, and a similar campaign launched specifically for kids. Some organizations, such as the Wilson Ornithological Society (an international scientific society comprising community members who share a curiosity about birds) offered free memberships. And we have seen an increase in organizations reaching out to #BlackAFinSTEM to hire some of our members for presentations, workshops, and program development.

How can environmental organizations transition into more inclusive birding?

Hire experts from the communities you are trying to engage–Black Birders Week showed us there are so many Black outdoor enthusiasts and birders who have the expertise that you can get to do programming and bird walks, etc.

Host walks in minority neighborhoods, places that are easier for Black, Indigenous, and people of color to access and places they are comfortable in. Think about what will make your audience feel safe–just put yourself in their shoes.

Think about when bird walks take place. I wanted to participate in bird walks at Wake Audubon in Raleigh but a lot were at 4:30 in the afternoon and it wasn’t possible for me to get there at that time.

Partner with organizations that are already in the community; take them out for a bird walk and show them how great it is.

How can individual birders/outdoor enthusiasts help?

I think the most important thing for any individual to do is be friendly and authentic. We shouldn’t discount the importance of a friendly face or how important a helping hand can be when starting any new activity. Sharing information like what you have seen on a walk, or even birding tips, are all helpful and friendly ways to engage with new birders out on the trail.