Why Black Birdwatchers Want to ‘Change the Whole Face of the Outdoors’

Why Black Birdwatchers Want to ‘Change the Whole Face of the Outdoors’

After a racist white lady called the cops on a black man who was birdwatching in Central Park last week, the black birding community came together to launch the first-ever Black Birders Week.

The celebration kicked off Sunday and will end Friday, but this definitely won’t be the last time this group of scientists, birders, and nature lovers center the stories of black people who find joy in catching the flutter of a wing or hearing the melody of a bird song. If there were ever a moment to celebrate black people from all walks of life, it’s now.

The incident with Christian Cooper in Central Park is indicative of the broader dangers black communities face and sparked widespread outrage. Then, later that day, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the spark that pushed communities over the edge to create the mass uprising happening now.

Black communities are sick and tired of the Amy Coopers of the world resorting to police calls whenever a black person makes them feel uncomfortable. More urgently, black communities are in pain from the trauma and death that police forces continue to inflict on their families and loved ones. Christian Cooper could’ve easily become a George Floyd or Eric Garner or Tony McDade.

However, Black Birders Week is not about building fear around what it’s like to bird while black. This week is about highlighting the magic and thrill of taking a walk in the woods in search of a bird that’s migrating back north from its winter away. It’s about celebrating the black people who take part in this space—and about inviting more to join then. Earther spoke with 27-year-old Brianna Amingwa of Philadelphia, who helped organize this inaugural event, to learn more about how she got into birding.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


Earther: What is Black Birders Week?

Brianna Amingwa: We set out three main goals with Black Birders Week, the first of which is visibility and representation. A lot of times, we have this kind of not huge community of black birders, and folks don’t know we exist. I’ve had family members who I talk to you and talk to me and are like, “What? How do you know that?” when I identify a bird or point something out.

And that’s not a great thing because how can we add to this community and into this really robust network without people knowing that we’re there?

So it’s really to uplift and recognize black birders, black naturalists, because our climate’s changing, our culture is changing. And to show how accessible it is, as well. Birding is one of the easiest things you can do. You don’t have to have anything to do it. You can just look outside and watch for movement in the trees. It’s a hobby you can have for your whole life.

So a lot of that is raising visibility and awareness about birding as a hobby, birding as community, even birding as healing sometimes as well, especially in times like this. Another part of that was to create dialog within the birding community to start having these conversations and make sure people know what the issues are and why they’re issues so that they can themselves take action to make a better space for us all to be in.

And the last part of that is just really the value of diversity in the birding community. I have a science background, so I could talk to you all day about the value of diversity in the natural world and ecology: having different kinds of species, having different purposes. But that’s true in our human world as well. Diversity improves groups and ecosystems and thought. It can bring a lot of creativity, so I think that’s another big part of it: valuing that diversity and putting it upfront and amplifying and magnifying all that.

Here’s Amingwa enjoying some time outdoors.
Here’s Amingwa enjoying some time outdoors.
Photo: Courtesy of Brianna Amingwa

Earther: Right on! I’m curious, was this something that you all had already planned, or was the planning of it a result of the incident with Christian Cooper last week?

Amingwa: We have a group chat of a lot of folks from across the country. We’re all young STEM folks. Not all of them are in conservation. Other ones are in economics, in all kinds of different things. Engineers even. And we often talk about current events and what’s happening. We were having a discussion in our group chat about the Christian Cooper situation and how upset and frustrated we were. All the people on the chat were kind of like, “What can we do?” So a few of the folks on the team came up with the idea, and we really just ran with it from there.

Earther: How did you get into birding?

Amingwa: I did not grow up birding, going outside a whole bunch, nothing like that. I’m from the metro Detroit area. I lived on a divided highway between two malls, so it wasn’t natural for me at all. I did always love animals, and I love cats and domestic animals. I was in Girl Scouts when I was a kid. I got to see horses, and I knew then that I loved horses. As I got a little older, I kept wanting to go and try to ride horses, but we didn’t know anybody anywhere who could do that for us.

My mom ended up coming across a guy named Doug Lewis, and he is a black horseman. He’d let kids from the city come up and ride his horses and clean the stalls and feed them, all for free. So I started going on these trail rides with Doug and the other black horsemen. It was while I was out trail riding in the woods in Upper Michigan, and I was like, “Whoa, who knew all this was out here?” I was shocked. I had never been into a place that wild. I saw bear dens and deer and birds and all kinds of stuff like that. That was when I was in high school. I felt like I was more interested in wildlife and wanted to know more about it.

During college, I was able to take an internship and work in conservation. While I was working there, I met a woman who was a birder, and she showed me an American goldfinch and showed me how it flew up in the air and goes “Potato chip, potato chip!” That’s the call that it makes. And that’s one thing we do as birders is match the birds’ calls to words so that you can learn them better. And I had no idea that birds had all these different sounds and calls, and you could learn them. And from then I was like, “I just got to start looking.” I needed to look around more, and the more I looked, the more I saw. That’s when I really just got hooked on it. That was back in like 2011, and ever since then, I’m always just looking for birds wherever I go.

Earther: Why is it important that black people get to enjoy this activity, too?

Amingwa: I think it’s so important that black people have a chance to enjoy this opportunity because we have a right to. Everyone should have a right to. I’ve seen in my own experience how it makes me feel, how calm I feel when I’m outside, how it’s energizing. There’s also all the health benefits of just walking and being outdoors and being in fresh air, being in a healthy green space. That’s great for your mental health and well-being. I don’t think that should be held back from anyone, especially not black people.

On top of that, I think it’s so important for black people to be in spaces that they haven’t traditionally been shown to be in. Black people were some of the first founders of our nation. We always had this connection and closeness with the land. I think a lot of times that’s misconstrued now into we don’t care about nature or we don’t know about it. But we were the original caretakers of the land, us and the Native Americans, indigenous people. That should continue now. There are still black farmers. There are still black naturalists and people taking care of the environment.

That needs to be seen and shown. You can only really be what you see. It wasn’t until I saw a black person riding a horse and other folks working in conservation that I knew I could do that before. Beforehand, it wasn’t even an option for me because I didn’t know it was there.

Earther: What are the challenges in increasing the visibility of black birders?

Amingwa: Some of the challenges are just defining what it is. It’s an unfamiliar thing to most people: What is birding? Why would you want to go outside and look at birds? But I think when we can get people actually doing it, they can see the thrill of it all. That probably even sounds silly to call it thrilling if you’re not into birds, but when you’re out there and it’s just super quiet and something just flies by and you’re searching and looking and you figure it out. Then you help someone else see it! And somebody else walks by, and they all want to know what you’re looking at through your scope or your binoculars. That’s a really big trigger moment for people of just getting them to kind of jump into it, too. I think that’s the challenge with visibility: Letting people know what it is, why you would do it, and then giving them a chance to actually experience it.

Earther: How do incidents like what happened with Christian Cooper in Central Park highlight the work that still needs to happen in this space?

Amingwa: With Christian Cooper, I think it was probably shocking to a lot of people in America. It was unfortunate, and it was very sad to see. But that wasn’t unusual to a lot of us who are black in nature. You know, there are very subtle things that happen: somebody refuses to say hi to you or doesn’t look to you as a source of knowing anything about birds, is suspicious of why you’re here even though you’ve got your binoculars on. Things like that. So we are familiar with those things happening. What’s different now is a lot of that is being caught on tape, and it’s being shared, and it can catch on on social media and really spread like wildfire as it did, which I think is a good thing because things like this raise awareness. People can say, “Wow, that’s terrible. I want to prevent that, too.” And more people will be advocating to make these spaces more welcoming.

I think it also poses a challenge because if we see what happened to this guy, Christian Cooper, out in the woods, a lot of people don’t want that to happen to them. It could have gone even worse for him besides just the media uproar. He could have been seriously hurt. So now we also have to make sure people know: It is safe for you to go. That’ll be another challenge, I think. That goes hand in hand with just raising awareness so that more people are looking out for each other.

Earther: This is my last question, Brianna. What words do you offer to young black people who are interested in birding but who might be hesitant to try it? Perhaps those people you just mentioned who might be afraid to now?

Amingwa: To any young black people who are like myself before I got interested, I would say to go ahead and take up space. You have a right to be there. Try not to let what has been created by others stop you from doing something that you might enjoy. Walk into those spaces and enjoy it and recreate and let people see you. Let others in your community see you and bring them along.

That’s something I’ve taken on in my career. Doing education and letting kids from Philly see me out there in nature and come with me on a hike and check out birds with me. It has made such a difference in how I look at things, hearing from them and being able to bring them along. So for folks who are new, find somebody and connect with one of these black birders who have been hashtagging and posting all week. We’d love to bring you along for a hike and to go check out birds. Let’s get even more people involved and ready. We can change the whole face of the outdoors.

Looking for ways to advocate for black lives? Check out this list of resources by our sister site Lifehacker for ways to get involved.

Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.

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DISCUSSION

I can personally attest to the difficulty of hiking or being in nature while Black. Last year I visited my first national park (Yosemite), with my wife. We had planned the trip for a year, and it was an amazing life changing experience. The Black community is generally not receptive to these activities, as the vast majority of my black friends essentially laughed at us when we talked about it. “Black people shouldn’t be outdoors... we had enough of that in Africa” is a common joke I heard. As a thirty-something black man who happens to be over 6'3", but have always loved nature, and adventure, and my wife and I enjoyed the trip immensely.

It was without a doubt one of the greatest weeks of my life. We traveled by car at first, but spend the last five days hiking, taking in the sites, and just having the time of our lives. We observed every rule about etiquette and respect for the park. We were careful to cleanup after ourselves, and not take in food that would attract wildlife, and we kept our stuff in bear proof containers.

Unfortunately, we were met with the same ol’ demons as we face in our daily lives. While most people we met were friendly, a decent number of people greeted us with stares, and at times outright hostility. This came from both Americans, and foreign tourists. It was 7 in the morning, and as the sun came up, a young German couple said something to us... They were upset that we went around them at a safe area before the climb. Both myself and my wife are not a huge fan of heights, and we were not moving quickly, terrified of slipping or the safety line breaking, and so I know for a certainty that they had literally stopped moving to take pictures and drink water. We had literally smiled and said hello as we passed, but I was told in a strong German accent that “This is why black Americans are always being arrested.”

We ignored this and went on with our trip. However a day later while we stopped too take in Taft Point, we had another encounter, this time with a white family that had three kids. At the trail head the father of this family stared at my wife as she sat on the bumper of our rented vehicle, he didn’t see me inside as I was bending over the seat to get something. The man walked up to my wife and asked if the car was ours. She responded that it was, then he asked how we got the spot. When she said we were there early, and tried to laugh it off, he essentially insinuated that we stayed overnight, something that we had observed others do, but had not done because we’d heard it was rude. She offered to move the car, but the guy went into a rant about ‘you people’ should know better.

He got upset, but before he could say anything further I hopped out of the vehicle and told my wife that we needed to get going, ignoring him. He asked angrily “Whats the problem ‘brotha’,” Thankfully, I remembered that I was not there to confront anyone, and my wife and I walked away. His wife tried to shout him down, as he continued to berate us as we walked down the trail. But I remember worrying that he might do something to the car, or lie about us in a call to the park rangers. He thankfully didn’t and eventually left.

Were these people actual racists? I have no idea. Were they were just angry for perceived slights, and were acting out? I don’t know.

Whenever you see a person of color on the trail, or in the great outdoors, please remember that for every nice person we meet there are others out there who still go out of their way to make life miserable for others, and for people of color, those incidents aren’t just little problems... we know that if we react out of anger at the wrong time it could mean we don’t go home.