I saw the question in the title of this post regularly just a few weeks ago. This was after trying to engage Michigan birding groups on social media about the ramifications of racism directed toward non-white birders. While I certainly will take a shot at answering the question, I first should give some background on this topic and why it’s so important. 

Last month, a man bird watching in Central Park, New York City was racially harassed during a confrontation. The man, Christian Cooper, happened to be black. In response, a group of prominent black birders and conservationists planned, promoted and carried out a week long string of activities called #BlackBirdersWeek. The week was a success and was supported by some of the largest birding and conservation organizations in the U.S. such as Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

One of the week’s participants, noted ornithologist, scientist and black birder J. Drew Lanham suggested, “…I think the big moves now, really are quite frankly, for white people to talk to white people and to say, ‘We can’t tolerate this’.”

His words struck a chord and while there was some resistance on social media to #BlackBirdersWeek, I continued to see many more Michigan birders express their support. These individuals were primarily white allies looking to get involved. 

I decided to connect with my state chapter, Michigan Audubon, and see what opportunities might be in the works. As a multicultural marketing professional with an emphasis on serving Latinx communities, I thought I might have something to offer.

I was pleased to learn that #BlackBirdersWeek was certainly on the radar at Michigan Audubon and that initiatives related to diversity and inclusion were already in the planning stages. 

This past week, Heather Good, executive director at Michigan Audubon, released an article restating the organization’s support of #BlackBirdersWeek, explaining what was learned from the activities and outlining next steps for strategies in equity.

Check out the article here: https://www.michiganaudubon.org/reflecting-on-blackbirdersweek/

Full disclosure, I had a hand in helping out with the article and am quoted in it, so I’m a bit biased. Regardless, hats off to the staff and board at Michigan Audubon for taking a leadership stance. I hope there will be turnkey initiatives in the near future for birders both of non-whilte and allied communities to get involved.

Back to the question in the title.

The question, in and of itself, may miss the point of birding and why bird and conservation organizations like Audubon exist. Yes, they have much to do with birds and certainly have done significant work to help in their conservation. But at the core, these organizations are about people. Specifically, people who care about birds.

The issue, however, is when bird caring people among us have their passions impeded because of their ethnicity and the color of their skin. Unfortunately, as #BlackBirdersWeek made clear, Mr. Cooper’s experience in Central Park was not an isolated incident. We heard stories from fellow bird enthusiasts explaining how they have had their birding experiences compromised because of everything from microaggressions to outright harassment.

For many, birding is an escape, a way to shake off the stresses of everyday life. I subscribe to a similar doctrine. Birds, watching and photographing them, have been one of my passions, as I’ve written about previously: https://flymikulich.com/2020/01/09/why-birds/

However, when this escape, this passion, this excitement for birds cannot be enjoyed by all individuals equally, there is a problem. The burden of responsibility to make our world of birds and conservation more inclusive lies not only with non-whitle communities but primarily with white allies and supporters.

But don’t simply take my word for it. Check out the two main video conversations for #BlackBirdersWeek here and here.
And take a moment and meet some of the young and talented individuals that put #BlackBirdersWeek together here: https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/03/us/black-birders-week-black-in-stem-christian-cooper-scn-trnd/index.html

  • While I agree that racism does exist here in America I have serious problems with the repeated use of the term “systemic racism”. I don’t believe that America as a whole is racist and if you fall for that narrative I would ask you to take a look at our country as a whole. What job isn’t open to any minority? What pay scale isn’t equal to any minority? If you are a woman you definitely get paid less, does that mean we are systemically an anti female country? Again, I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist but it’s not systemic or the majority of our country! The media and these hate groups may want you to think that, it benefits them, but look at the people of this country! We elected an African American with an overwhelming majority of the votes, twice!

    This is a horrific time in our country to be anyone right now, look at what is happening, people are actually discussing renaming birds, Elizabeth Warren, who lied about het Native American heritage (which doesn’t exist) to get ahead in school and a job, is calling for the graves of civil war vets to be removed from military cemeteries if they fought for the confederate army! Does she not realize they were buried next to the northerners brothers as a way to heal the country? Statues of Lincoln are being defaced, he fought and died to free the slaves! George Floyd was murdered! No one disputes that, yet when Rayshard Brooks got into a fight with two officers after 40 minutes of cooperating with them and took ones taser (all on video and body cam) he was fatally shot, another huge tragedy. But first degree mufder? Seriously? First degree murder requires the person to go into the situation with premeditated thought to kill someone else. This situation at best is manslaughter! And even that is questionable as the Atlanta district attorney has, just last year testified that the use of teasers is a deadly weapon according to Georgia law. Other policemen across the nation when faced with the exact same charge, shooting a suspect armed only with a taser, have not even been charged, they were jnvestigated and cleared. We are in a time when war has been declared, and it’s going to get worse! On top of this tragedy how many of you know this disgusting and horrible fact, the officers step-mom, Melissa Rolfe, was fired from her job just for being his stepmom, is that the kind of country we are heading for?

    Again, I’m not saying anything about what happened to Christian Cooper, and no one deserves to be treated differently. I can not say in any way shape or form what it’s like to be harassed or singled out (even though my ancestry is partially from North Africa on my mothers side my last name is Farrell, I am white, by the end of every summer I do look like I could be of a mixed race), I can say I HAVE NEVER TREATED ANYONE ANY DIFFERENT BASED ON PHYSICAL APPEARANCE of any kind and I will never feel guilty because of some perceived notion that I live a privileged life based on my race. Do I have less of an issue with police? I’m not going to argue that point but to blame me because it is my fault for being born white? Seriously? Isn’t that the definition of racism?

    • Thanks for posting Phil. It means alot that you took the time to do so. You put quite a few topics there. Not sure I have the authority to speak about some of them. Regarding the organizers of the #BlackBirdersWeek, do you think they made valid points? How do you see some of your questions relating to what they spoke about?

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  • I saw your post in Montana Birding and clicked the link to your article. I am an avid birder and bird photographer. I was excited to see Black Bird Week. It was such a big success!
    I hope that as an ally, I can play a part in making birding inclusive to all. No one should have the joy taken away that birds and nature give us. I see you and thank you for this article.

    • Thanks for posting. A question: as an ally, what do you think the next steps should be?

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  • Problems happen between people all the time. White or Black. All too often it is called racism if it involves a black person. Racism is taught. Let’s teach our children not to be racist. What I am seeing currently is increasing racism beyond anytime I have witnessed. Please change your plan. Peace.

    • Thanks Randall. I think we can certainly agree racism is a taught behavior. Regarding the organizers that put together #BlackBirdersWeek, what is your take on what they did?

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  • It deeply saddens and angers me that there has to be something called “Black Birders Week”, I wish it were a non issue. Every week should be Birders Week, regardless of skin tone. The thing I love about birding is that people of all different levels can bird together and have a good time. More experienced birders encouraging and cheering on the new ones. I’ve always felt that birding is a great way to bring all kinds of people together. I don’t care about the color, ethnic or national background of the birder next to me, I care about the joy and discovery of birding, and sharing the joy of a birder getting a life bird.

    • Thanks. Yes, joy of birding is certainly quite special that all should enjoy. Do you think those that made the #BlackBirdersWeek happen were right to do so?

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  • The awareness created by Black Birders Week was positive and raises awareness regarding the lack of diversity within the North America birding community and explores some of the underlying reasons why. I appreciate you making the effort to be involved and elevating the conversation.

    I was shocked by what happened to Christian Cooper in that video but it wasn’t his birding that triggered that woman’s racism – it was his conservation advocacy that fueled her display of contempt and hatred. Some may call the distinction trivial but since I’ve been in the same situation (minus the racism) I think it’s a difference worth noting. Maintaining quality habitat for birds especially in human-dominated landscapes is increasingly challenging; people often hold negative attitudes toward wild spaces in urban/suburban environments.

    Had Christian Cooper ignored the woman and her dog that morning and not defended the habitat that he and the organization he represents worked so hard to establish he likely would have avoided conflict that particular morning. This point is not to take away from the sad reality that people of color are often excluded or viewed suspiciously in public spaces – I don’t doubt that in the least.

    I’m grateful to see people defending Christian Cooper’s right to bird but also kudos to him for being a conservationist and advocating on behalf of birds.

    • Thanks for the comment Joe. Yes, Mr. Cooper certainly had conversation in mind as the unfortunate incident played out. What I think is more important is that the incident brought forth the conversation with other black birders that had similar and worse experiences. I feel it’s important for others in the birding community to hear those conversations. However, knowing what we know now, where do you think we should go from here.

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