#BlackBirdersWeek 2021: Celebrating The Joy Of Birds : Short Wave #BlackBirdersWeek emerged last year from a groundswell of support for Christian Cooper, a Black man and avid birder, who was harassed by a white woman while birding in Central Park. This year is all about celebrating Black joy. Co-organizer Deja Perkins talks about how the week went and why it's important to observe nature wherever you live.

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#BlackBirdersWeek 2021: Celebrating The Joy Of Birds

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Hey, everybody, Rhitu Chatterjee here. Emily Kwong is heading out for vacation for a few weeks, so I'm back in the SHORT WAVE host chair with Maddie for a little bit. Today, we're heading into nature and a celebration of birds with Black Birders Week. The week emerged last year from a groundswell of support for Christian Cooper, a Black man who was bird watching in Central Park when he encountered a white woman walking her dog off leash. When he requested she leash the dog - and those were park rules - she called the police saying he was threatening her. Now, year two of Black Birders Week had a different tone. It was a celebration of Black joy. And that goal is especially close to the heart of Deja Perkins, one of the organizers. Her love of nature evolved slowly.

DEJA PERKINS: I actually have a really interesting story, I guess, because I didn't have a strong family connection to the outdoors.

CHATTERJEE: Her mom did bring her to zoos, aquariums and museums, and she'd watch birds in her grandmother's backyard. Then her curiosity about nature led her further, to be an urban ecologist and a birder.

I know you have three favorite birds, so straight away I want to ask you about them, but tell me about just one of those three birds. I'll ask you about the two later, I promise.

PERKINS: OK, so the - OK. The one that I'm going to choose to talk about is the barred owl. I love this bird because it can be seen or heard during the day. In fact, the most times that I've seen this bird has been during the day. And they have this really cool call. It kind of sounds like who cooks for you? And so they go, who cooks for you?


CHATTERJEE: I love that.

Deja says that in the pandemic, bird watching has been the perfect way to temporarily escape the pandemic stress and get some fresh air.

PERKINS: You have to focus and observe a bird and you can just sit there, sit somewhere and watch a bird's behavior and where it's going. Is it carrying food? Is it hunting something? Is it calling or singing? You know, just sitting and making those observations can be really peaceful and, honestly, super interesting. And it definitely gives you a more of an appreciation for the little dinosaurs that we have running around.


CHATTERJEE: So today's show - how Black Birders Week went in year two and why it's important to observe nature wherever you live. This is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


CHATTERJEE: All right. So the group Black AF In STEM organized the week, and I saw a tweet that said hashtag #BlackBirdersWeek2021 is a celebration of joy, large and small. What were your most joyous moments as an organizer and participant of Black Birders Week?

PERKINS: Well, as an organizer, I'm just really proud of the reach that we were able to achieve with Black Birders Week, especially being the second time around. The first year was really focused on letting people know that Black bird watchers exist, identifying - you know, it was born out of trauma. But this second year was really focused on the joy that we experience in the outdoors, the many different careers and hobbies that we can do related to birds. And being an urban ecologist myself and doing work with my master's focused on who is participating in bird watching and looking at, like, what that means for our data, it was really important for me to incorporate that into the week, so sharing tools for, you know, people to be able to either advance their bird watching skills or to be able to go out and try birdwatching on their own, even if they don't have a group to go with.

CHATTERJEE: What were your sort of most memorable moments on some of the walks that you might have participated in?

PERKINS: So on the Saturday hashtag #BirdsOfAFeather event, I led an in-person walk in my hometown in Chicago, and it was the first time I had ever, one, led a walk in my hometown, two, experience an all-BIPOC bird walk and the first time I've ever led that experience as well. And it was just really, really magical because it was this thing that was born on the internet allowed me to make these connections in person and be able to share my passion for birds and the importance of monitoring our local neighborhoods with the people in my neighborhood. And it was a safe space. It felt like family. There was so much laughter and joy, you know.

And I just sat back at one point because it was - I had people across generations - like, I had a grandmother who came and brought her grandchild and said that I just really wanted to introduce her to you. And she loves birds, and I just wanted her to be able to experience something with you. I had, you know, people who traveled two hours to come and join this walk with me. And it was just amazing to be able to network and build community and laugh and to just know that people felt safe enough around me to lead them on this experience and that we were able to connect through nature and birds.

CHATTERJEE: Yeah, that's joyful and powerful. Now, the more serious safety issues that sparked Black Birders Week last year still persist. And you addressed those with this year's hashtag #SafeInNature day, which was Thursday. So what kind of safety issues did people raise?

PERKINS: There are a variety of safety issues that people encounter in the outdoors, and it gets even more specific depending on how intersectional your personality is. So you have, of course, protecting yourself from the environment, which is what we often hear in our field safety classes, how to protect yourself from the elements, how to protect yourself from poisonous plants, how to protect yourself from venomous wildlife. But then there's that other aspect of safety in the outdoors and who you encounter. And I think a lot of times, when people think about, oh, safety in the outdoors, they - you know, they either think of, you know, safety from nature or they think about racism and, like, safety from people.


CHATTERJEE: But that's not the only type of safety that we need to be concerned about. A lot of the people who threw an organized Black Birders Week were black women. A lot of bird watchers in general are women. A lot of women experience harassment in the outdoors. And I myself have also experienced that. And it's something that I'm constantly thinking about. So being able to connect and hear from two women, two Black women, who wrote a paper and really just outlined various tips that we could use in the outdoors, you know, whether that's tips to make ourselves safe or things the institution should be doing - because as the person guiding that walk, it is our responsibility to make sure that everyone we are guiding is safe. And if we're not doing that, we're not doing our jobs.

CHATTERJEE: Yeah, and just like, you know, what you're saying is something that's come up repeatedly about the role that institutions and organizations can play in addressing harassment. Now, Deja, you're an urban ecologist, and you've done some birding work as part of your research. Tell me about your study counting birds in the Research Triangle in North Carolina where you did your master's work. Why is it so important to map birds in urban areas?

PERKINS: Oh, this is my favorite question. So one of - I was actually - I actually found my love for birding in my neighborhood and observing neighborhood nature through my master's project working with the Triangle Bird Count, a citizen science project out of North Carolina State University. And our goal was to map the diversity of birds across the Triangle region. Now, if we have - a lot of times, when we look at the data that we have, it's about, you know, large landscapes, rural areas. But cities are really, really, really important for conservation. Birds live everywhere, not just in pristine parks, not just in, you know, remote locations. They stop in cities during migration, you know, and some of them live in cities year-round. So it's really important that we start to think about how we can protect the birds that live in cities and how we think about the future of cities.

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. I mean, I think, as you point out, you know, the conservation movement now recognizes, too, that there's a need to conserve urban environments as well just because, you know, cities are also where wildlife inhabit or pass through. And we can use cities as a way to address climate change as well, like, say, by increasing tree cover. So it makes sense what you're saying, that even with birds, it's important to keep cities in mind.

PERKINS: Exactly. What a lot of urban ecologists have been looking into lately is the connection between different biodiversity measures and historical practices, like redlining. And so redlining was a racist historical practice implemented in the 1930s and '40s with the sole purpose of limiting minority homeownership, specifically Black homeownership. And so studies have shown that areas that were redlined in the past still have less tree cover today than areas that were not redlined, which has an impact on the heat. And heat is - urban heat is not something that's just bad for, you know, birds. That's something that's really bad for people. With our cities - summer is getting hotter, climate change. We need to be able to make sure that we protect people as well.

And so areas that were redlined, they also - because they have less trees, maybe they'll also have, you know, less native species. And there's something called the biological luxury effect where higher income areas will have higher species diversity. And this is because they have more space to plant or more green space. And this can impact birds negatively as well as people because people benefit from those green spaces as well.


CHATTERJEE: And hopefully with Black Birders Week, you can inspire a new generation of young people living in all different kinds of neighborhoods, perhaps especially those that you don't have birders in to connect with birds wherever they are.

PERKINS: That's one of the main things that I love that Black Birders Week highlighted. There are many different people who enjoy birds, and there are many different ways to enjoy birds. So we just want everybody to start observing and loving birds (laughter).


CHATTERJEE: Deja Perkins, thank you so much for sharing all your experiences and insights and for all the work that you're doing in making birding more inclusive. We really appreciate your time. Thank you.

PERKINS: Thank you.


CHATTERJEE: For the record, Deja's other two favorite birds are the sandhill crane and the pileated woodpecker. This piece was edited and produced by Gisele Grayson and Rebecca Ramirez and fact-checked by Indi Khera. Thanks to Tyler Jones, who inspired this episode. I'm Rhitu Chatterjee. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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