In its third year, Black Birders Week 2022 is focusing on making outdoor spaces safe for all people of color. Following the viral story of Christan Cooper, a leader in the NYC area bird watching community once threatened by a white woman he’d called out for asking her to leash her dog, necessary conversations around being Black and outside began to take place. If you recall, once Cooper asked the woman to abide by the park rules, she became aggressive and argumentative, conjuring a story she would tell police about “a Black man threatening her life.” This was all of course untrue, and fortunately captured by Cooper’s phone. But who wants to have to go through all of that when you’re just trying to enjoy your day?
Chelsea Connor, a graduate student and herpetologist at Clemson University spoke to USA Today about previously joining a private online networking group for Black people interested in the sciences and the pursuit of outdoor hobbies. What she found was that many of those she interacted with had had similar experiences, even if they were not as overtly racist as what Cooper had gone through.
“We started talking about our experiences being Black outdoors, either birding or doing field work and encountering racist violence,” Connor recalled. “We were angry and hurt and scared.”
Another member, Harvard University researcher and graduate student Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman had the idea to introduce a national day to celebrate Black bird watchers, while Tykee James, a government affairs coordinator for the National Audubon Society suggested that they turn it into an entire week.
The celebration caught on like wildfire and is now observed in cities nationwide from New York to Philadelphia, Cleveland to Raleigh, North Carolina. Participants are able to learn about falconry, and are supported by tips to overcome mental illnesses and learning disorders. Overall, Black birders are simply looking for those to enjoy their outdoor hobbies with, even if that support is from afar. Feeling safe while alone in predominantly white spaces calls for the disruption of racism in these environments. Something the people of these communities look to their allies to handle.
“With allyship comes accountability, and sometimes a lot of it is the inner work,” said Nicole Jackson, an environmental educator out of Columbus, Ohio.
As for Cooper, bird watching superstardom may be in his future. It was recently announced that he’ll be the new host of a new National Geographic show, “Extraordinary Birder.” While the network has yet to release a premiere date, this is huge news for young Black children, and for those of us who grew up watching stars like Steve Irwin.