Environment

During A Week Of Protests, A Celebration Of Black Naturalists

Jason Ward, a science communicator who lives in Atlanta, and the other organizers are working to highlight black birders, to show they're out there, and to help people with similar interests connect with people who look like them.
Jason Ward, a science communicator who lives in Atlanta, and the other organizers are working to highlight black birders, to show they're out there, and to help people with similar interests connect with people who look like them.
Credit Nicholas Lund

A few weeks ago, Christian Cooper, a birder who’s black, encountered a white woman in New York’s Central Park. He asked her to put her dog on a leash; she called the police and claimed he was threatening her life.

He wasn’t.

Cooper recorded the interaction on his phone, and the video ended up grabbing a lot of attention. It was shared online; there was an uproar.

In response, other black birders organized the first-ever Black Birders Week, which wraps up Friday, after days of online chats, livestreams and lots of social media posts showcasing black birders, naturalists and scientists. The BlackAFinSTEM Twitter and Instagram accounts have hosted and promoted the initiative.

“Birds – especially during hard times like this one¬ – birds can be a source of light, a source of happiness for people,” Jason Ward said. (Courtesy of Jason Ward)

The timing was coincidental, but it’s meant that a week of protests against police brutality and in support of black lives has also been a week of celebrations of black naturalists.

One of the organizers is Jason Ward, a science communicator who lives in Atlanta. He said when he saw Cooper’s video, it resonated with him.

“I completely identified with what he was dealing with at the time and the nervousness that we could hear in his voice as he was having the interaction. I’ve had incidents in the field, with police vehicles, or people just watching me,” he said. “A group of us got together and decided that we should do something. We literally put it together in about 48 hours.”

Ward hosts the video series “Birds of North America” – Cooper has been a guest on the show – and he also leads bird-watching walks in Atlanta, though those are temporarily on hold because of the pandemic.

He said there’s been a positive response to Black Birders Week; it’s gotten support from the Audubon Society. Livestreams and social media posts have gotten thousands of views. But he said it’s also been tough to have the events overlap with the protests.

“It really brings home the point that this movement, this initiative is necessary,” he said. “Because we are not – no matter how many people try to say this – we are not in a post-racial society. It is still something that impacts our everyday lives.”

He said black people often don’t have access to nature where they live, or even if they do, they may not feel safe in it.

So Ward and the other organizers are working to highlight black birders, to show they’re out there, and to help people with similar interests connect with people who look like them.

“Birds – especially during hard times like this one­ – birds can be a source of light, a source of happiness for people,” he said. “And not just one particular kind of person.”

For anyone interested in trying bird watching, Ward’s advice is not to succumb to frustration. He said if you’re having fun looking for birds, then you’re doing it right.

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