Just four days after the encounter between a white dog walker and African American birdwatcher Christian Cooper, a group of approximately 30 Black scientists, birders, and outdoor explorers have created a new awareness campaign to encourage birding among more people of color.
The project is called #BlackBirdersWeek, and it will take place from Sunday, May 31, through Friday, June 5. Anyone who is interested should follow the hashtag #BlackBirdersWeek on Twitter and Instagram.
Activities will begin on Sunday with #BlackInNature “to celebrate Black nature enthusiasts everywhere.” A two-hour Q&A on Twitter with the hashtag #AskABlackBirder is also slated.
Leaders of the initiative include Anna Opoku-Agyeman, an economist and co-founder and CEO of the Sadie Collective; Jason Ward of the “Birds of North America” YouTube series; his brother Jeffrey Ward, a science communicator; Corina Newsome, a graduate student at Georgia Southern University studying the Seaside Sparrow; Tykee James, host of the podcast OnWord4Wildlife; and herpetologist Earyn McGee, a PhD candidate at the University of Arizona. You can find the full list of organizers at this Twitter link.
“This effort was borne out of a large friend group of Black scientists and outdoor explorers who want to make sure the world knows that Black birders belong here, we are thriving, and our community is growing,” Newsome says. “We want members of our community who might be interested in birding and outdoor exploration to know that they are welcome here and to not be deterred by people who have attempted to make these spaces hostile to us. We are changing the face of birding.”
In the years that I’ve been walking and taking pictures in Cesar Chavez Park, I’ve seen maybe a dozen African-Americans with the binoculars or scopes that are the badge of an active birdwatcher. That’s about one a year. Here as nationally, birdwatching is a “white” hobby. That means there’s a risk that a black birdwatcher will be made to feel that they aren’t welcome or don’t belong or aren’t legit somehow. In this city that prides itself on diversity — a quality that has faded severely over the past decade — no white person will admit to prejudice against black park visitors. Fine. But how are we behaving? Many of us are in the habit of greeting other park visitors with a cheerful “good morning.” Are we being conscientious in extending that same courtesy to park visitors regardless of their skin color or apparent national origin? It takes only a subtle cue, a “microaggression” in millennial language, to transmit negativity and make a person feel unwelcome in this public space.
In Berkeley I don’t expect a repetition of the Central Park event, where the white owner of an illegally off-leash dog fabricated a murder threat and dialed 9-1-1, confident that police would take her side against the black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, who politely asked her to obey the law and leash her dog. But the aura of privilege that this dog owner assumed is very much present here as well. I and many others, including Parks Department employees, have been the targets of curses, obscenities, threats, and in some cases actual violence at the hands of dog owners who see themselves as above the leash law. It’s only a minority of dog owners who behave in this arrogant way, but they poison the atmosphere for everyone. One wishes that the dog lovers’ associations would put their foot down and curb this behavior by their peers before we have another kind of atrocious incident like the one in Central Park.