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Black Birdwatchers Face Racism Too

University of Arizona conservation biology graduate student Earyn McGee visits Saguaro National Park, Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Earyn McGee/Katherine Kennedy)

The day that George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a white woman called the police on an African American man birdwatching in New York's Central Park.

"I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life," the woman is heard in a video of the incident posted on Twitter that went viral.

In the outrage that followed, the woman was fired from her job.

But the incident could have gone another way, said Tykee James.

"As a black man in America, I know that that kind of discrimination is an easy route to police interaction that could end fatally," he said.

James is a birder himself, and a government affairs coordinator at the National Audubon Society, the nation's leading bird conservation and advocacy group.

As demonstrations against police violence draw thousands to the streets of cities across the United States, James and a group of African American scientists, naturalists and birdwatchers have taken to social media to launch another protest against systemic racism.

It's called #BlackBirdersWeek.

'Not for us'

With tweets, livestreams and Q&As, the group aims to change the perception that black people are not "outdoorsy" types.

"For far too long, black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities such as birding are not for us," Georgia Southern University biology graduate student Corina Newsome said in a Twitter video launching the event.

Sunday featured photos of African Americans who work in nature or just enjoy being there. Monday was #PostABird day, followed by Tuesday's live Q&A, #AskABlackBirder.

"The black experience is not just one of trauma," James said. "It's one of pride, strength and joy."

James is part of a group of African Americans working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics who put Black Birders Week together. The group posts on Twitter as @BlackAFInSTEM.

The tweets of cute birds and pretty scenery can be a relief from the rage on social media. But don't get the wrong idea, University of Arizona conservation biology graduate student Earyn McGee said.

"Just because it's a whole lot of pretty pictures doesn't mean that it's separate from everything else that's going on," she said.

"It's born out of pain and silence and just wanting to be seen and wanting to be heard."

Christian Cooper, the subject of the viral Central Park birder video and a member of the New York City Audubon board of directors, is featured on Thursday's #BirdingWhileBlack Facebook livestream. The week ends with Friday's focus on #BlackWomenWhoBird.

'This is awesome'

McGee got into conservation biology while at Howard University, a historically black institution in Washington, D.C. She fell in love with fieldwork studying lizards in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona.

Black Birders Week is not just for birders. Earyn McGee poses with a Yarrow's spiny lizard. (Photo courtesy of Earyn McGee/Noel Hamideh)
Black Birders Week is not just for birders. Earyn McGee poses with a Yarrow's spiny lizard. (Photo courtesy of Earyn McGee/Noel Hamideh)

"That's when I was like, 'Oh, this is awesome,'" she said.

Her love of lizards and the outdoors has persisted. Each Wednesday, she shares lizard facts and photos on her Twitter account, @Afro_Herper, under the hashtag, #FindThatLizard. She may not be a birder, but she is co-organizing Black Birders Week as an African American naturalist.

At Howard, she said, “it wasn't unusual for black people to be interested in science and wildlife.” But going to scientific conferences, she said, she could not help noticing, "the only black people I see, really, are the people who came with me from my university."

"It's really isolating and lonely," she said. "You worry about, 'Do I even deserve to be here, or do I belong?'"

It's the same on television, she added.

"If you look on Discovery Channel or Animal Planet, most of what you see is white males. ... You don't really get to see a whole lot of stories from black people."

The outpouring of support on social media for Black Birders Week has been great, McGee said, but "we just hope that the support doesn't stop at Twitter posts."

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.