Many people watched a video taken in Central Park in late May in shock and disgust. A white woman threatened a black birder, who tried to get her to leash her dog. She purposely called out his race on a phone call to the police. But the incident has sparked an online action that is bringing joy to many called #BlackBirdersWeek on Twitter and Instagram.
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When Monique Pipkin, who studies bird behavior for the PhD she’s working on at Cornell University, saw a call for black birders to post a bird photo, she chose the chipping sparrow.
“That’s the animal I learned how to bird with,” Pipkin said. “They’re these tiny little sparrows, who have this lovely little trill song, that is a single note repeated.”
Juita Martinez, a PhD student at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, was among about 30 young birders to co-organize #BlackBirdersWeek. She tweeted the Northern Mockingbird.
“Most people sometimes find them annoying,” Martinez said. “I think they’re really cool.” It was one of a handful of photos she posted of what she calls backyard birds. “Just to show everyone out there, especially black birders that are just beginning, you can probably find these birds, or see them around very easily.” she said.
Angie Armstrong says her phone has been blowing up since she shared the photo she calls “sassy duck,” taken on campus at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York where she works as a researcher. “It just so happened, right before I hit the shutter release, that something flew overhead, and he tilted his head up to see what it was,” she explains about taking the photo. “It was like the perfect picture. That was five years ago and still that picture brings me joy every time I see it.”
“I haven’t had something in my life that has been so fulfilling, and that I can put so much of my energy into and get so much joy out of it.”
As a kid in Philadelphia, Tykee James, another #BlackBirdersWeek co-organizer, says his friends couldn’t understand why he would get up early on the weekends to go birdwatching. He remembers the thrill of seeing a bird he’d studied in a book, out in nature.
“I see a belted kingfisher, a female sitting on a cattail, then swoops across Cobbs Creek and makes that call that, you know, it’s always going to be etched in my mind,” he said. “I was just so present in that moment, that’s something that was on paper turned into something real.”
The Video Sparks Action
But James, who works for the National Audubon Society, wasn’t surprised by the video in Central Park of a white woman calling the police on a black birder.
“When I first saw it, honestly, it was just another video in a long list of videos of white people entitlement, weaponizing police brutality to manage an inconvenience in their life that involves a person of color,” James said.
#BlackBirdersWeek was conceived when members of the group BlackAFinSTEM were talking about it. “I initially didn’t even watch the whole video because I knew exactly how it was going to end,” he said, then admitted, “I was wrong. It led into Black Birder’s Week.”
The week has included black birders posting photos of themselves in nature, a Twitter chat called “Ask a black birder,” a day to highlight female birders, and a live discussion called “Birding While Black” on Facebook, hosted by the National Audubon Society.
Juita Martinez is amazed at how much attention they’re getting. “I could never have imagined this,” she said. “I don’t think any of us could have. This was something that was needed. Really, the support means everything to all of us.”
Birding While Black
Most images online of birders and others in nature are of older white people and children. Martinez hopes #BlackBirdersWeek will help normalize images of black people in the outdoors.
Currently, Martinez says it can take a lot of effort for a black woman to get ready to go into the field. “I have to look like a birder, 100 percent. I make sure I have either a field guide in my hand of birds just so people can see that I’m just here to bird. I’m not here to do anything else.”
Martinez remembers being purposely splashed by a passing truck while birding. Others say they mostly bird in urban areas or with white friends to avoid confrontation with people who might feel uncomfortable with a black birder.
In her years of birding, Monique Pipkin has been able to go birding with other black people only once in her life.
“Just to be able to see all of the amazing black naturalists, black biologists, or just black birders, or anyone who’s spending time in nature, it’s affirming and it’s exhilarating and it’s just really comforting,” Pipkin said.
The idea and creation of #BlackBirdersWeek happened within days of that video in Central Park, and it has meant long nights of work for organizers, according to Tykee James.
“We didn’t pick our moment, but we are rising to the occasion,” he said.
James hopes their efforts set a precedent for future generations, not just that everyone has a place outdoors, but also that they can work together toward positive change.
“I haven’t had something in my life that has been so fulfilling, and that I can put so much of my energy into and get so much joy out of it,” James said. “We were talking on one of the calls sometime, we were just like, ‘I am exhausted, but I will not stop smiling.’ ”