My grandfather is not the only black birdwatcher I know of — anymore
Christian Cooper and Black Birders Week prove there are more
There was a huge binder on my grandfather’s dining room table, and it was full of bird photographs. When he wasn’t speaking fondly of baby cubs, he’d randomly start talking about penguins and show me photos of him with binoculars around his neck. Quite frankly, I thought my grandfather was weird. I love him, but I did not understand the appeal of birdwatchers or someone who collects bird pics. If memory serves me correctly, he even laminated the images. I honestly thought my grandfather was the only black birdwatcher I’d ever personally know. To this day, that’s still true.
When I joined a gym a couple of years ago, I remember a white lady running up to me in the locker room, gushing over rare piping plover chicks and asking me was I going to Montrose Beach to see them. My first thought was, “You can see I’m black, right?” I did not say that out loud. Instead, I fought back an eye roll, said, “Yeah, that’s not really my thing” and headed toward the showers.
So my first thought when finding out that Christian Cooper, the victim of Amy Cooper’s malicious and dishonest 911 call, was a birdwatcher was, “My grandfather is not the only one?” Then here comes #BlackBirdersWeek to really intrigue me.
Understanding why my dismissal of birds versus dogs align
I got all-caps curse-outs left and right for being concerned about the Cocker Spaniel almost getting choked out by Amy Cooper. As someone who dismisses birds the way a lot of these Twitter rants dismissed dogs, I get it. If you’re not into furry pups, there’s no way you’re going to understand why I was relieved when her dog was taken away from her. In my opinion, dogs are a woman’s best friend, not diamonds. And taking away a dog lover’s pet is the ultimate punishment. Amy Cooper deserved exactly what she got.
Plus, generally speaking, white people really love their dogs. That’s not to downplay black folks who love their dogs, but there is a segment of the white population who loves dogs more than they’ll ever even tolerate black people. Still though, I understood why people dismissed the dog. If you’re not into them, you’ll never get it. And that’s how I feel about birds. It’s not my thing. But I’m willing to bet I can find more black dog lovers than black birdwatchers if I walk outside to take a vote right now. However, it is fascinating for me to learn that this is a real thing that some black folks are serious about.
Expanding my own mind when it comes to black people and hobbies
I would’ve much rather learned of Christian Cooper’s birdwatching under any other circumstance but the Amy Coopers of the world. But, as messed up as it sounds, at least he’s still alive to talk about his hobby.
“People don’t understand that Black people exist in other contexts other than the ones they’re exposed to,” Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, one of the organizers of the #BlackBirdersWeek event, told CNN. “It’s to ensure other people see the impact of Black birders and naturalists, and gives them a chance to be seen.”
Wildlife biologist Alex Troutman told CNN that there are a combination of reasons that black folks may not immediately be affiliated with birdwatching, one of which is we are commonly found in urban areas. (In rural areas, wildlife and outdoorsy hobbies tend to be more common.) As a Chicago native born and raised, I can kinda sorta agree to that. Although pigeons walk around downtown like they’re the ones who are late to work and two-legged humans need to get out of their way, I don’t really notice a whole lot of birds. However, because I was a Girl Scout for five years, I did enjoy camping. And one of the very few things I liked about attending Northern Michigan University was being dragged out by some white friends who were adamant that I hike up Sugarloaf Mountain with them. I thought the idea was lame at first, but then I got into it.
As much as I hate the way black birdwatchers are coming into the limelight right now, the one thing I can say is I’m learning a lot more about black wildlife conservationists and their interests. Quite frankly, I may have paid slightly more attention in painfully boring science classes if I saw a bit more diversity. This is exactly what happened to make me appreciate art more, too — black art teachers. Meanwhile, no amount of pleading could get me out of biology and chemistry. I’m still pissed that the frog I dissected was full of dead tadpoles, and that assignment certainly helped instigate me into being a vegetarian for the past 15 years. By the time I was assigned to take physics, I put my foot down and wiggled my way into other electives to graduate. Science has always been boring as hell to me.
Still though, I hope this raises some important questions in the educational system about how to make certain topics more interesting to a diverse student body. Corina Newsome, a Philadelphia native and field biologist, said it best, “Before I saw [a black woman working at the Philadelphia Zoo] in action, it never crossed my mind that I could be a zookeeper.”
To live and to learn.
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