Jun 4, 2020 - Science

Black birders and the barriers they face

Photo of Jason Ward birding

Jason Ward birding. Photo: Mike Fernandez/National Audubon Society

A weeklong campaign is highlighting the work of birders, conservationists and scientists who are black — and raising awareness about racism in the outdoors.

Why it matters: “Birding and having a relationship with the outdoors is something that every one should be a part of it. But when it comes to black people in America our relationship with the outdoors is complicated, it just is,” says Jason Ward, a co-founder of Black Birders Week.

Background: Last month, Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher who is black, asked a white woman in Central Park to put her dog on a leash. She responded by calling the police and saying an African American man was threatening her life.

  • After the incident, members of the BlackAFInSTEM group chat rallied around the birders in the group, says Ward.
  • What quickly emerged was Black Birders Week — a series of Q&As, livestream discussions and other events taking place online this week to celebrate and encourage scientists and naturalists who are black and to call attention to the challenges they face.

Black birdwatchers say they're often threatened or intimidated in the outdoors and face prejudice and racism while doing field research.

There is omission: Advertising for outdoor clothes and off-road vehicles rarely features black people, says Ward.

  • “We’re not seeing ourselves in these spaces so we then think we aren’t welcome in these spaces.”

There is suspicion: Ward, who hosts the video series "Birds of North America," recalls being followed by a police officer from one area to another in a favorite birding spot and says while birding he makes gestures with his binoculars “to make clear what I am doing.”

  • "When we do decide to explore or venture into these spaces, people question what we’re up to."

What's next: Against the backdrop of a broader national conversation about racism, Black Birders Week is also a protest "for the existence of black people in the natural space, in the birder space, in the explorer space," Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, who helped to organize Black Birders Week, tells the Verge.

The bottom line: Altogether, the result is an underrepresentation of people who are black in birding.

  • Ward says diversity in the birding community can be better supported by consistent educational outreach to communities and having representation within organizations and professional science societies.

Go deeper: What you should know about black birders (Jacqueline Scott — The Conversation)

Go deeper