(Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Rewire.)
When I first reached out to Jason Ward, the 33-year-old host of the popular YouTube series Birds of North America, I was hoping to speak with him for a lighthearted piece full of tips and advice for new birdwatchers.
Later that day, I opened Twitter. Two videos were trending.
The first showed a racist incident in Central Park, where a white woman called the police on Black birder Christian Cooper after he asked her to follow park rules and put her dog on a leash.
The second captured the killing of George Floyd in broad daylight by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
“There’s very little diversity in birding, We want to change this.”
When Ward and I spoke via phone a few days later, we decided to shift our conversation in light of these events. From his home in Atlanta, Ward shared his reaction to Cooper’s video, described his own experience as a Black birder and discussed ways for white birders to create a more inclusive community.
The day after our conversation, Ward announced on Twitter the formation of BlackAFinSTEM, a group of young naturalists who quickly organized a Black Birders Week campaign in response to both the Central Park incident and the recent killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
“There’s very little diversity in birding,” Ward later wrote to me in an email. “We want to change this.”
“We want to show people that birding is for everyone.”
Rewire: How did you first get interested in birding?
Jason Ward: I grew up in the South Bronx, and when I was about fourteen years old, I witnessed this peregrine falcon de-feather a pigeon thirty feet away from me. It was like watching Animal Planet in HD. I was entranced.
That interaction happened through the window of a homeless shelter I was living in at the time. Birds have always had the ability to bring me out of a dark space and provide relief in bad times.
I didn’t even know birding was a thing until my mid twenties, though. That was when I bought a fifty dollar pair of binoculars, showed up for an Atlanta Audubon Society field trip and was blown away by everyone’s expertise.
I wanted to be able to do what they did, so I downloaded birding apps, watched YouTube videos and shadowed birders. Eight months later, I was leading that same bird walk.
That was my first milestone moment as a birder. Seven years later, here I am, leading guided walks, giving talks and, of course, I have my show, which is a literal dream come true.
After all these years, what keeps you excited to watch birds?
It’s the scavenger hunt aspect of it. Before we see birds in person, we see how beautiful they are in field guides and hear how pretty their songs are on apps. When you see one of these birds for the very first time — that’s the moment I want everyone to experience.
It’s like hunting without the gore. It’s Pokemon Go but with real animals.
And then there’s the therapeutic value of being out in nature around the green trees and blue sky. That combination is unbeatable. Being able to smell the fresh air and disconnect from the news and your phone — there’s nothing like it.
Christian Cooper appears in the very first episode of Birds of North America, which was shared widely on social media following the Central Park incident. How do you know Christian?
My brother, Jeffrey, is also a birder and leads walks in Central Park. He’s bumped into Christian Cooper there several times, and they’ve led after-school programs together. We had planned to showcase Christian’s work with school kids in one episode, but we weren’t able to get a lot of permission slips signed and nixed the idea.
The interesting thing is that, during a full day of shooting in the park, I ran into him when we were both chasing a Mourning Warbler. It was a chance encounter, and he was really kind to allow me to interview him.
What was your reaction when you saw the footage of Christian Cooper’s confrontation with the dog walker in the park?
My first reaction was anxiety and nervousness. I know how strong and confident Christian is — he has a large personality — so I could feel how serious the encounter was by hearing the trembling in his voice. It was scary to watch.
After that, I started to feel angry, because you see the woman going into hysterics, and you can see the maliciousness when she starts to use certain phrases and paint a picture of what she’s going to do.
I’m glad that a lot of people are having serious conversations now about what transpired, especially since everyone wound up OK.
Have you had similar experiences while birding?
I had an incident when I was looking for a Grasshopper Sparrow out in farmland in the southernmost point of my county. I pulled off to the side of the road to listen for it, and I started to notice that the cars passing by were getting slower and slower. I didn’t want to have an unpleasant interaction with someone, so I decided to leave and come back another day.
I had another incident when I was birding in an area where only two cars were parked — mine and a police vehicle. I grabbed my gear and made a point to walk right past the officer’s car while looking up at the trees as a gesture to show that I was birding. About a hundred feet after I passed him, I started to hear the sound of gravel. I turned around and noticed that he’d been inching his car closer and closer, watching me the whole time.
It was really unnerving to know that I was being watched and perceived as suspicious, even though I was doing something as innocent and simple as birding.
Do you think these types of incidents discourage young people of color from getting into birding and other outdoor activities?
Absolutely. If I was ten and saw the video of Christian Cooper, I would have second thoughts about birding. That’s exactly why it’s incredibly important for people such as myself to not get discouraged.
I have to continue to go outside, record content and put it on Instagram and Twitter, and show myself in these spaces. We are going to normalize this and make it something that people won’t even take a second look at.
Tell me about your mentor, Dr. Drew Lanham, who also appears in an episode of Birds of North America.
I don’t think he even knows that I call him a mentor, but he’s been that for me. He’s a figure to look up to, as another Black birder and as someone who is so well respected by everyone. He’s what I want to emulate in my journey.
Birding has become much more popular in recent years. What do you think is drawing so many young people, especially people of color, to birding?
When anything grows in popularity, it gets younger and more diverse. And that’s because it only takes one individual to blaze a trail. Then people are able to follow that trail and blaze their own. We’re really starting to see the fruits of that occur.
I think it’s more accessible these days as well. No matter where you are in the country, there’s a number of bird species that live near you. You don’t have to travel hours to enjoy birds. They’re in your backyard right now.
Can you recommend any groups for new birders to join if they’re looking to be part of a larger birding community?
The American Birding Association is amazing. They’re almost like extended family members to me. They have a podcast and different outings you can attend.
There’s also #BirdTwitter, where a bunch of us from different parts of the world tweet amazing things about birds. We’re always there with our arms open, waiting to welcome another member to the flock.
I got into birding for the birds, but I stayed because of the community, for sure.
What can white members of the birding community do to create a more inclusive atmosphere for all birders?
For people in the community who want to be allies and lead us in the right direction, I think it’s very important to be diligent, to be intentional and to speak up when you see injustice.
Also, seeing color is a very important thing. If you don’t see color, you’re kind of blind to a lot of other things as well. If you speak up, if you’re actionable and if your heart is in the right place, then your allyship is welcome.
We have a long road ahead of us, but I think we’ll get there. As the birding community becomes more colorful, I think that the future of birding is in good hands.
Do you have any final advice for bird-curious folks who want to start birding?
As far as equipment goes, you need your eyes, ears and curiosity. If you have those things, you can be a birder. Some people stress about the right and wrong ways to go birding. At the end of the day, if you enjoy watching birds in their natural habitat, you are a birder. And if you’re smiling while you’re doing it, you’re doing it the right way.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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