Birding While Black
A conversation with birder Jason Ward, educator and host of “Birds of North America”
As a white, middle-aged, straight man, I’m awash in privileges. And one of those privileges is that I can go just about wherever I want, whenever I want, without fear for my physical safety. This freedom also allows me to go birdwatching almost anywhere I might like, without worrying that my mere presence will trigger suspicion or aggression.
Of course, many birders of color don’t enjoy that same privilege. That inarguable truth was brought home recently when Christian Cooper, a well-known black birder in New York City, was threatened by a white woman in Central Park who sought to weaponize his race against him. The disturbing video quickly went viral, and it helped spark an effort called #BlackBirdersWeek among black birders who are determined to assert their basic right to pursue their interest in the natural world without fear.
One of the main promoters behind #BlackBirdersWeek is Jason Ward, a thirtysomething African American birder in Atlanta who in recent years has become something of a birdwatching sensation thanks to his unchecked passion for birds and his knack for social media. When not leading Atlanta-area bird walks, Ward is busy hosting the YouTube series “Birds of North America” while also working to encourage a new, more ethnically diverse generation of birdwatchers.
Last year, I got the chance to talk with Ward for The Overstory, Sierra magazine’s podcast. Here’s a snippet of our conversation.
Jason Mark: So I discovered you first on Twitter. I'm not the birder you are, but I'm a little bit of an amateur birder. And then I eventually checked out your YouTube series, which is called "Birds of North America." In the intro to the show, you share this story of your “spark bird,” the bird that got you interested in birds.
Jason Ward: When I was 14, I spotted a peregrine falcon eating a pigeon on my windowsill in the Bronx. I never looked back.
So why was that so magnetic for you? Like, why did that hook you?
So at the time, I was living in a homeless shelter.
So that was a pretty low time for me. And I was around 14 or 15 at the time, and I had been an animal nerd for about 10 years running at that point in time. But the majority of my experience with wildlife was either in books or on television. And when I saw those feathers kind of floating by the window, I had no idea what was going on. So the nosy New Yorker in me ran to the window to check it out. Sure enough, there's the peregrine falcon just defeathering, just plucking the feathers off of this pigeon. And just diving into some research about this bird, I quickly learned that it was the fastest animal on the planet, capable of diving at over 200 miles per hour.
Right? It's amazing.
And not only that, but its scientific name is falco peregrinus, which translates to wandering falcon. So this is a bird that can be found on six of the seven continents. It can leave an unsuitable situation in search for greener pastures. And that was something that I wanted the ability to do growing up as well. So instead, I kind of just adopted this bird as my spirit bird essentially, and I was able to live vicariously through that bird and its ability.
You're saying in part because you and your family at that point were going through a really rough time. I mean, it was sort of this ideal that you could wander yourself and make new futures for yourself?
Exactly. I mean, this is a bird who has the capability to see the world for itself. And when you see any bird, you wonder where it's been. What things has it seen? And there was this dream that one day I'd get to see some of the places that this bird has seen as well.
You did this great segment on "Birds of North America" about young birders in Ohio. I'd love to hear your thoughts about getting new people into birding. I think your story is so inspiring. When it comes to kids, is there a secret sauce or some sort of trick about getting younger folks to get excited about the magic of birds? And is that different from getting an adult, or let's say someone who's in their twenties, involved?
I think that it's already happening. Birding already has so many things in common with other popular crazes that we've seen over the past several years. Birding is Pokemon Go with real animals, essentially. Right? It's hunting without the gore. There's this treasure hunt kind of a feel to it. We're seeing these numbers, these estimations of how many birders are in the United States, and they're in the tens of millions. And I think that that number is going to continue to grow over the years. But yeah, I think it's inevitable. Birding will become younger, and it will become more colorful as well. That's an inevitable fact.
You went birding with the writer Drew Lanham?
And he talked about how for birders of color, for people of color, there are unique headwinds. In his words, "It's like a migrating warbler combating a wind." As an African American man, I wonder if you could talk about those headwinds and what are the kind of unique challenges that might face people of color who are just getting into birding?
Ah, where was I? Alpharetta, Georgia. Yes. Yes. And it just finished raining. So after-rain birding is some of my favorite birding, for two reasons. One, the birds have just finished hunkering down and now they're about to start feeding again. It's typically pretty cool around that time, as far as the weather goes. And also, there’s not a lot of people around. That's perfect birding right there.
So I was sitting in my car, waiting for the storm to pass over. And when I got out of the vehicle, I noticed that there was a cop car that was just sitting in the same parking lot as I was, but just sitting there. And we are the only two cars in the parking lot. And I do some birding around the area, jump back in my car, and I drive to a different part of the same park. And when I park and get out, I hear some gravel, because it's a gravel parking lot there. And I hear some gravel moving, and sure enough, it's the same police vehicle that has decided to follow me down this driveway and park about 200 feet from me. And so, I register that in my mind, and I'm just like, "OK, well, you know what? I'm here to see birds. Let's start birding."
So I start birding. I walked past the cop vehicle and I keep on birding. I hear more gravel. And I look back and he's inched about 50 to 100 feet closer to me. And in my head, I'm like, "Wow, they're watching me." There's nothing else going on here. I'm right along the Chattahoochee River, so I'm by Morgan Falls Dam, and there's nothing else going on around here. There's no one else out here. And so that was a little bit off-putting, but nothing came from that thankfully.
Still, man, that sucks. I mean, that's just . . . that sucks. And I'm sorry that happened to you. Regardless of what our human situation might be, birds sometimes allow windows on a different world. You recently went birding with the novelist Jonathan Franzen. He said birds are "the last readily available connection to the wildness that's all around us." Why do you think people are hungry for that connection?
I think it's because of the state of things as of late. Birds, no matter what kind of environment you're in—if you're in a city, suburbs, out in the country—there are birds around you. And there are going to be several different species of birds around you. That's partially what drew me to them in the first place. Sure, I can fall in love with big cats, but I'd have to travel to another continent to see them.
Here I am in Atlanta, which is known for the worst traffic in the country, and I'm sitting in traffic one day and I'm not moving much. And I'm seeing these barn swallows that are swooping around the car—they are being acrobatic and catching insects. And I stopped being upset for a moment that I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic. So I think that having them around and having them sit there and sing these songs every spring and summer morning can kind of distract you, in a good way, away from what's going on in the world.
And I think that in addition to that, we're starting to spend a lot of attention talking about mental health these days, which I think is a great thing. What if each and every individual would spend 10 or 15 minutes out there in a green space? You don’t have to be deeply immersed in the woods. You could just visit a local patch without your phone and just literally smell the roses and listen to the birdsong. You'll find that your mental health will increase just a little bit.
Well, Jason, thank you so much for all the wisdom. Thank you for sharing with us your passion. I really appreciate it. That was Jason Ward. He's the host of the YouTube channel "Birds of North America." You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonwardny. Don't be confused by the Twitter handle; he's actually in Atlanta, Georgia. Thanks so much, Jason. I wish you the best of luck.
Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity as it was adapted from radio for this text format.