With binoculars in hand, a group of outdoor enthusiasts of color walked into the woods of Palmer Park in Detroit on the lookout for birds.
Almost immediately into the Saturday morning walk, a barn swallow flew overhead, a fleeting image of cobalt blue and copper. Soon after, an oriole, a member of the blackbird family, was spotted in a tree. As the group walked deeper into the forest, the sounds of the birds got louder and it was evident there were a number of avian species moving around in the forest.
For most of the two dozen who took part in the Saturday birding walks, it was one of the first times they were bird watching, or even in nature, with a group made up mostly by people of color.
“I’ve been enjoying birds for most of my life, but every time I would go to an Audubon meeting, I’d be the only Black person, the only person of color there,” said April D. Campbell, a seasoned birdwatcher who led the bird walk through the Palmer Park woods. “I’ve been accosted by people while birding, even in my own neighborhood,” she said.
Campbell recounted that during a day of bird watching in her Ann Arbor neighborhood a white woman began following her. After a few blocks, Campbell said she turned toward the woman and asked if she needed to talk to her about something. “Well, I just want to know what you’re doing because you know, there have been break-ins,” Campbell said the woman told her.
Campbell said she couldn’t believe the woman’s assumption that she was walking through the neighborhood with binoculars in the middle of the day, planning a break-in. Campbell felt she was being followed because she is Black.
Saturday’s walk was held as part of Black Birders Week, a national campaign to bring attention to the risks and obstacles Black, Indigenous and other people of color, like Campbell, face while enjoying nature.
The event was first held in 2020 following a high-profile encounter in New York’s Central Park Amy Cooper, who is white, called the police to allege she’d been threatened and assaulted by Christian Cooper, a Black man.
Christian Cooper had been bird watching when he asked the woman to put her dog on a leash. Amy Cooper rejected his request and told him she planned to call the cops to tell them that he was threatening her life. When he didn’t give in, she placed an emergency call and claimed she was being threatened by an African-American man and asked dispatchers to immediately send police. In a second 911 call, she falsely claimed she was assaulted.
Christian filmed the exchange, which occurred on the same day George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, and the video went viral. Amy Cooper was charged with a misdemeanor for the false report and had faced up to a year in prison. Prosecutors later dropped the charges after she completed a racial bias educational program.
In response, Black AF In STEM, a national collective that supports and uplifts Black science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, professionals in the environmental field, created Black Birders Week. The series of virtual birding events works to educate the outdoor community about the challenges faced by Black birders. The week included hashtag games, Q & As, and livestream videos, all to counter anti-Black in nature narratives and to increase diversity in the birding and conservation fields.
“We’re having this week because we all saw what happened to Christian Cooper that morning,” said Dara Wilson, one of the co-organizers of the national event.
“Christian Cooper is our hero. Because if not for that I would not know the rest of these people who I now organize with,” she said, “up until then I hadn’t met another person like me.”
Wilson, who lives in Tallahassee, Florida, started as a participant, but became a co-organizer in the second year. She is one of several across the country, including in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and New York.
“This was born out of something incredibly traumatic, but we cannot stay in that place,” she said. What propels Wilson forward is how the event has taken off.
In its first year, Black Birders Week took place virtually with people participating across the United States. Two years later, the event has gone international, with a bird walk in the Bahamas livestreamed on Instagram. In the United States, the event was celebrated with a mix of in person and virtual events. The full scope of the event isn’t entirely known. Black AF In Stem is still collecting data, but said participation is growing, with organizers themselves hearing about new Black Birders Week events, like those held in Detroit.
“It’s really important that we see ourselves in leadership, [that] we see ourselves in positions of doing good work and bringing community together,” said Antonio Cosme, an organizer with Black to the Land Coalition, one of the organizations that co-hosted the Detroit Black Birders Week event.
“So much of the conservation movement, of the environmental movement, is white-run. When you have people who aren’t from frontline communities, who don’t have the experiences that we do as people of color, as people who live in environmentally polluted areas, as people who are low income people – you get different results,” said Cosme.
“By bringing us together here today we’re forming a voice, making connections,” Cosme told BridgeDetroit.
Sitting on the grass to have a discussion, attendees of the Saturday event shared experiences with racism in natural spaces in Detroit. On Belle Isle, in Rouge Park, and in their own neighborhoods, residents said they had been questioned or intimidated by the police or other residents, for simply being in nature.
“There’s a long history of associating wild places with harm,” Campbell said. “A lot of places were segregated – the national parks were segregated or they didn’t allow you in at all.
“Birding has been a hobby that’s been largely the purview of well-to-do white people and to this day it’s still very much that way,” she added. “There’s been some reluctance from a lot of the birding groups to really be open in a way that affirms people of color in this hobby, and make the effort to go where the people of color are.”
At Palmer Park, Campbell offered the BIPOC birdwatchers a different kind of experience. One of the first things she told the group was that it would be a “no shush tour” meaning that laughter, conversation, questions, and noise were all welcomed, in contrast to most bird walks.
“The birds don’t care,” she emphasized.
Detroit resident Stefanie Steele had past birding experience and just recently participated in a bird walk in Detroit that echoed Campbell’s statements about uninviting spaces. In comparison, the walk through Palmer Park was “very comfortable” she said.
“Everybody had different experience levels and we were helping each other out and pointing out things,” Steele said.
On the walk, Steele spotted a Great Crested Flycatcher, a brown and gray bird with a yellow underbelly. “It’s striking,” she said, “it’s a little more modest, but still beautiful.”
Mia Royster was a part of a group from Ypsilanti and Detroit that attended without any prior experience in birding. “I like that they give you binoculars, so you can really actually feel like a birdwatcher,” she said.
Also in her group was Peggi Smith, pushing a stroller with her grandchild in it.
“Growing up, I didn’t have any activities like this to be able to participate in,” Smith said. “I want to be able to take my granddaughter to more events so she can see people that look like her and represent her.”
At the event there were giveaways, activities such as learning how to photograph wildlife, and resources for BIPOC outdoor enthusiasts to get connected to other outdoor opportunities. The event was co-hosted by Black to the Land Coalition, Detroit Outdoors, Detroit Audubon, Outdoor Afro, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Belle Isle Nature Center.
To offer more opportunities like this, Campbell recently created a group called BIPOC Birders of Michigan.
“It’s meant to be a safe space for people of color to bird and not feel like they’re not experienced enough or they don’t have the ability or the funds or means to bird,” she said. “This is about getting young people of color in particular involved so that they may want to become ornithologists, and wildlife biologists, or make it a lifetime hobby and help their communities get back in tune with nature’s rhythms.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that speakers from Kenya had participated in a Cornell University ornithology panel.