black birders

Black Birding Is About Hope

Photo: Katherine Arntzen, Georgia Southern University

No one has a specific claim to “the Great Outdoors,” but it’s clear that in America, being in nature isn’t equally safe for everybody. It was only last week — though it might feel longer ago — that a white woman in Central Park lied to police that black birder Christian Cooper was threatening her. A few months earlier, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was shot while jogging outdoors in Georgia. As Audubon SVP for state programs Rebeccah Sanders said, “Black Americans often face terrible daily dangers in outdoor spaces, where they are subjected to unwarranted suspicion, confrontation, and violence.”

In response to what happened to Cooper and to open up a larger dialogue about what it means to be black in the outdoors, a GroupMe of young black scientists called @BlackAFinSTEM has launched the first-ever Black Birders Week. It’s a weeklong social-media series to celebrate black birders and nature explorers, highlighting #BlackWomenWhoBird and #BirdingWhileBlack.

The Cut talked to Corina Newsome, co-organizer of the event, about creating room in the predominantly white space of outdoor exploration.

What spurred the creation of Black Birders Week?
It was born out of a group chat between Jason Ward [host of the YouTube series Birds of North America], Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman [co-organizer of Black Birders], myself, and many other people. We wanted to do something to highlight black birders, especially after the incident in Central Park with Christian Cooper.

I’m in southern Georgia now for graduate school, studying sparrows. My research takes place on the coast. Ahmaud Arbery was killed down the road from our field site. I’m overwhelmed with grief for my people in the space that I’m studying. I’m in the marsh, just weeping. It’s a disorienting feeling that detracts from the joy of doing what I’ve always wanted to do.

When I’m in the field, I always make sure my binoculars and GPS are on the roadside. I never turn my back to the road. I double-check to make sure I have the right documentation. Multiple times when I’ve been out there, I’ve seen people pull off the road in their pickup trucks. My stomach will drop. I dread it. I always feel like I’m around the corner from something happening.

What type of practices do you follow as a black birder to be safe in the space?
Jeffrey Ward is Jason Ward’s brother. If he’s walking in a forest and approaching white people, he immediately makes his binoculars visible. They’re often clearly, visibly uncomfortable when they see him. Dr. J. Drew Lanham has nine rules of birding, which he wrote in 2013. If you’re a black person, don’t wear a hoodie outside. That is dangerous.

When I birded in the beginning, I used to wear what I would categorize as white-people clothes, like khakis. And then I was like, Why do I need to do this? To stave off discomfort from me looking any more different? That’s ridiculous. So I decided to wear my hoops and skinny jeans. I want to look like the black person I am every other day of the week.

What do you think is the current narrative about birding?
The current narrative is that birding is a luxury activity for people who have the privilege of buying thousands of dollars worth of equipment and not worrying about their safety outside. I grew up in the city, and it was seen as a white activity, like hiking. I’ve done this experiment with kids where I’ve asked them to draw an explorer and they always draw a white man. It tells you what we think of this profession. At various levels, that needs to change.

In the past two days, the number of comments I’ve gotten from white men about Black Birders Week is astounding. Some said we were being divisive. Some were telling us we were being racist by having this. One of my friends wanted to post about it on the Tennessee Naturalist’s page. They rejected it with all sorts of different excuses that seemed like they were protecting white comfort. They claimed that it had racist undertones, or that it fell under the category of being religious. In the end, if you are unwilling to face any sort of discomfort, you are complicit.

Photo: Katherine Arntzen, Georgia Southern University

How can people help?
Condemn neutrality. Being neutral is exclusionary. It signals to the oppressed people that this is a place where they aren’t welcome. Most people in these spaces are white — hold them accountable if they’re neutral or censoring the experiences of black people.

I’ve had wonderful experiences with people who have held others accountable. You can tell them, “You’ve chosen wrong.” You can make new groups that encourage others to share their experiences of injustice as a direct protest. One of the best ways to be an ally is to recognize, and address, the white supremacy that exists in this space. Until others are willing to acknowledge or believe that, black people will be stuck doing it over and over again.

How did you get into birding?
I went to school in Northwest Ohio where I was a zoo and wildlife major. One of the required field classes was ornithology, where I had to memorize 200 birds by sight and 70 by song. I was like, I’m going to fail. My professor, Dr. Jason Courter, was abnormally excited by birds. When he started talking about them, he would tear up. I was like, Wassup, this is unsettling for me.

But the first day of the lab portion in class, he was going through a slideshow and the first picture he showed was a blue jay. I just straight up yelled, “What is that?” I had never seen a blue jay. I’ve heard of them, of course. It’s a big bird, full of so many colors; it was crazy. And then I went outside and realized they were everywhere. That was my gateway bird. Every birder has a story like that — the one bird that sets you off. I owe everything to that blue jay and Dr. Jason Courter, who let me look weird in front of everyone.

What kind of joy does birding give you?
Birding is a hope-giving activity. Birds are special to me. I feel privileged to have the perspective on how they’re built and what they do. They’re a symbol for hope, like the Emily Dickinson poem. They’re mostly hollow bones and feathers. You could crush a little warbler in your fist. But these same birds are migrating long distances twice a year.

Part of the joy of birding is looking for different birds and immersing yourself in their diversity. There’s the chase, especially during migration when you never know what you’re going to see. Every single species is like a jewel. It’s a treasure hunt and it’s thrilling. If you’re a real nerd, you can track migration with the weather radar.

A humming bird weighs 0.1 ounces, and can fly over the Gulf of Mexico. They have fragile vertebrae, and yet they fly incredibly long distances with no land in sight. If this bird that weighs nothing can fly over the Gulf of Mexico, then I can do whatever I want. Even when I feel weak or fragile or not cut out for something, birds remind me not to disqualify myself.

Black Birding Is About Hope