Ph.D candidate Juita Martinez sat on the porch overlooking her Louisiana backyard, virtually chatting with fellow birder Deja Perkins and the hundred or so people who had tuned in to watch the Instagram livestream event Backyard Bird Feeders & Photography, part of the third day of Black Birders Week 2021. The video feed had crashed minutes earlier, but the enthusiasm on the livestream wasn’t dampened when Martinez returned.
Over her shoulder, a White-winged Dove and a Blue Jay sized each other up at the series of platform and tube feeders in Martinez’s backyard. As she turned the camera and herself around for a closer view, she joked about her long black hair getting caught on the plants behind her.
“Long hair don’t care, we love it!” Perkins responded with a smile before Martinez launched into her tips for bountiful bird feeding on a grad student budget.
Throughout the second annual Black Birders Week from May 30 to June 5, a series of over 20 social media events shared the enjoyment and unpredictability of birdwatching—and along the way strengthened a growing online community of diverse nature enthusiasts from across the country. The original Black Birders Week last May started as a hashtag movement that spontaneously launched a series of social media events in the wake of the viral online video shot by Christian Cooper when he documented his racial harrassment incident in New York City’s Central Park. The first Black Birders Week involved all levels of bird watchers—from casual hobbyists to professional ornithologists and conservationists—sharing their experiences in the field, both positive and negative. It spawned a series of other hashtag movements in other science fields, such as #BlackInAstro, #BlackInNeuro, #BlackInMicro, and even a #BlackHerpersWeek and #BlackMammalogistsWeek.
“We really just wanted everybody to know what Black birders face,” said Texas herpetologist and coorganizer Chelsea Connor, “the type of discrimination that we face just trying to be outside birding in the park, or other naturalists in the field […] when really we’re just trying to either do work or just enjoy the outdoors like everybody has the right to.”
A year later, Black Birders Week organizers were urged to stage a sequel by popular demand.
“With this year, there’s still very much a continuation of people wanting to connect after Black Birders Week,” said Ohio environmental educator Nicole Jackson, one of the event organizers.
This year Black Birders Week featured an even greater breadth of programming and activities, with a variety of livestreamed events ranging from panel discussions about useful birding apps and Q&A’s with veteran Black naturalists to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service environmental education supervisor Brianna Amingwa’s tour of her bird-friendly native plant garden and North Carolina State grad student Murry Burgess’s presentation of her research on the effects of artificial light on Barn Swallows. The week also included daily giveaways, the release of a series of free coloring pages with lineart by Black artists, a birding trivia night (you can test your own knowledge here), and an exclusive extended screening and of the new film The Falconer about Washington, D.C.-based falconer and conservationist Rodney Stotts.
“The focus this year was the celebration of everybody else that’s already out there,” said coorganizer Sheridan Alford, who just earned her master’s degree in Park Recreation and Tourism from the University of Georgia. Alford also spoke on multiple panels and co-hosted a virtual birding event with the aforementioned Perkins.
“We really focused on the people that were doing the work, the people on the ground, a lot of folks from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service like Dr. Mamie Parker, the people that have been in it forever,” Alford said. (A Presidential Rank Award winner, Dr. Parker worked for the USFWS for 30 years and was the first Black woman to serve as assistant director of fisheries and habitat conservation, as well as the first African American to lead a USFWS regional office during her 30-year tenure at the institution.) “We want to show that there have been people doing this before us. We’re not the only ones and we’re not the first ones.”
With Black Birders Week 2021 now in the rearview, the question already being asked of event organizers is, What next? Texas wildlife biologist and event coorganizer Danielle Belleny says she envisions regional birding events and live talks as the world recovers from the pandemic; indeed, many of the people involved in Black Birders Week have never met in-person due to COVID. Regardless of whether it’s in-person or online, she says the enthusiasm and passion will be the same.
“I think every year is going to be a recurring theme of talking about different levels of our blackness and the intersection of our blackness with our other identities, and how that interacts with our ability to enjoy the outdoors,” Belleny says. She highlighted the Thursday #SafeInNature discussion panel as her favorite and most impactful event, particularly as a discussion hosted and led by Black women.
“I think the tone for both years was, ‘We’re having fun, but there’s a serious conversation still to be had,’” she says. “I’m really proud of what we did. It’s going to be bigger and bigger each year, so I’m really excited for what happens next.”
Check out the full program for Black Birders Week 2021.
Adé Ben-Salahuddin is an aspiring undergraduate-level evolutionary biologist and freelance science educator whose favorite birds are all extinct (dinosaurs). You can follow him on Twitter and YouTube for videos about prehistoric life, the people who study it, and how we talk about it.