News | May 27, 2024

Birding while Black

A candid conversation with Chelsea Connor, a Black Birders Week Founder
Catch up with Chelsea Connor, a herpetologist, science communicator, artist, and a co-founder of Black Birders Week. (Chelsea Connor)
(Courtesy of Chelsea Connor)

Chelsea Connor grew up surrounded by the beauty of Dominica, an island country in the Caribbean that is part of the Windward Islands chain in the Caribbean Sea’s Lesser Antilles archipelago. 

Growing up in a place tourists and birding aficionados traveled to see tropical birds made a big impact on her, and now she’s a herpetologist, science communicator, artist, and a co-founder of Black Birders Week.  

An already tight-knit group of Black birders started the week-long event in 2020 as a direct response to an incident in New York City’s Central Park where Black birder Christian Cooper was confronted by a woman when he asked her to leash her dog. The ask resulted in her calling the police claiming an African American male – Cooper – was threatening her.  

The incident was a significant one at a time when the world was in the throes of a pandemic and a string of police violence against Black people raised questions of inequities. Those questions of inequities and bias prompted similar ones about public spaces, national parks, and who can enjoy them without fear of violence and shame.  

Four years after the incident and four years into the very successful Black Birders Week held in the last week of May annually, we caught up with Connor to see how far birders have come — and where we’re all going. 

How did the co-founders of Black Birder Week come together so quickly in 2020 to establish this annual recognition and celebration of Black birders? 

We already had this sizable group chat going on before everything happened in Central Park with Christian Cooper. We had all been talking and sharing the different experiences that we had. The good experiences and the bad. So, when that incident happened, we talked about it because here is another incident of racism in an outdoor space.

We thought about it and decided we had to say something as individuals who go out into the field looking at birds, but also as a collective.

At first, we were just doing a day, but then we decided on a week, because there’s just too much to say in one day. We love birding, we love being outside, and we love nature.  

How did the Audubon Society become involved in the week? 

An eared grebe swims atop a lake. (Chelsea Connor)

Audubon reached out to us asking if they could do anything to support us. We were all surprised because we didn’t expect one of the big birding institutions to take part. One of the things we’ve all experienced is there is a certain standard for who can be a birder. They tend to congregate at these institutions and it’s an older, richer, white person. When you go on bird walks, they talk to you like you don’t know anything. So, we were pleasantly surprised. Organizations being involved in these conversations is very important.  

Fast forward to now. Have you seen a change since 2020?  

I definitely have seen more Black people outside, especially on social media. It used to be that when you looked at outdoor stores, you only saw white people. I’ve seen that change, but also just on my timeline. I see more people enjoying the outdoors. I’ve seen this globally — people talking about what it means to have space and ensuring that they are fostering an inclusive space for everybody.  

Some groups have taken on efforts to change the names of spaces and national parks, but what else would you like to see changed?  

Audubon is this giant national organization, and a lot of states have smaller organizations that have been changing their names. They’ve been recognizing that while John James Audubon has done a lot for birding and science, he’s also perpetuated a lot of racism and “race science.” And in order to help mitigate that, one of the things that we can do is stop honoring people who held those views so recently the American Ornithological Society, one of the organizations that decide on the official names for birds, have decided that they’re going to change the eponymous names, which means that any bird that’s named after someone is going to be changed. 

How is climate change impacting birding?  

A dark-eyed junco sits in the woods. (Chelsea Connor)

So, to start with, I’m from the Caribbean. The island I’m from is called the Commonwealth of Dominica. It’s a very small island, is very beautiful, but with climate change there comes a lot of intense weather conditions including more powerful hurricanes. In 2017, we had Hurricane Maria hit. Hurricane Maria was one of those rare instances where you have explosive intensification — when a hurricane goes from a category one to a category five, which is the highest level, within 24 hours. 

It was terrifying. On this very small island, you have a wide range of endemic birds. You have two incredibly rare parrot species that live at very specific elevations on the mountains. Trees are gone so birds and birders are greatly impacted.  

What are your favorite birds to watch?  

Cormorant – and there are different types. Pelagic cormorants, double-crested cormorants, and the Brandt’s cormorant. That one might be my favorite. And also the surf scotor. They’re a type of duck. They’re a weird duck. I love ducks. 

Learn more about birding and Black Birders Week.