Black birders week #blackbirdersweek

This week is black birders week – a mainly North American thing. And, by chance, it comes at the time when there are riots across the USA after the death of George Floyd at the hands, or knee, of a white policeman.

Last week I read about this event in Central Park where a black birder, Christian Cooper, asked a white dog-walker, Amy Cooper (no relation), to put her dog on a lead as required by the park regulations. Ms Cooper phoned the police.

Mr Cooper was out looking for spring warblers in The Ramble – I’ve done that at this time of year and it’s great to be able to see a dozen or more warblers in the middle of one of the world’s largest and busiest cities (see here 19 May 2011). Mr Cooper sounds like a nice guy, and one who knows his birds; Ms Cooper sounds like less agreeable company to me (see accounts: Independent, Guardian, NBCNews and particularly this account in the New York Times which has more bird names in it than the others, and more of Mr Cooper’s thoughts).

I well remember a black guy standing up to ask a question at the RSPB AGM many years ago. He looked around the room, which in those days was around 1000 people, and pointed out that there weren’t many people in the room who looked like him – he was being kind, as I remember it, there wasn’t anyone else in the room who looked like him.

Are things changing? How many BAME birders do you know? How many are in your bird club? Not many, I’ll wager.

So the question for all of us who are white birders is ‘Are we doing things, even unintentionally, that exclude BAME people from our hobby?’.

And the question for our wildlife NGOs is ‘Why aren’t things changing?’.


12 Replies to “Black birders week #blackbirdersweek”

  1. I think it’s largely a cultural thing. Do you see many BAME faces at the races for example? I see lots, especially black ones, when I go to watch a football match with my grandsons. Given everything else on their plate I don’t think it’s something the wildlife NGOs should spend too much time worrying about. In my experience most birders are a friendly lot, only too happy to point out stuff to the less experienced in hides for example. Peoples’ race is irrelevant; the doors are open to anyone who wants to come in.

    America is another country. When I was birding in the south, perhaps 20 years ago, the racism there was obvious. The most striking example was when I unknowingly walked into a black motel and was told it was full. On further enquiry, “your motels are down the road”. To be fair, it was for our own safety but it was a sad episode. I’m white btw.

      1. Thanks David. There was nothing casual about my response. I just think the wildlife NGOs face enormous challenges. They should and do welcome everyone but it is not their core mission to try and change society at large. And I’m well aware that black people enjoy birding just as much as white people – I did not suggest otherwise. I don’t see why black birders in the UK should ever think they are “alone” – they are just ordinary people like the rest of us. In all my time birding in the UK I have never witnessed racism of any kind. As I said, America is a different country – a deeply divided one.

  2. There isn’t anywhere near enough done to get anyone involved from outside the groups that are already conspicuously (i.e confidently) involved in wildlife study and conservation. Once we’d asked for their help in an underprivileged area we were working in – a particularly rough council estate – the RSPB (and also Woodland Trust) were absolutely superb in both their moral and practical support, couldn’t fault them they were magic. It transpired though that the RSPB waits to be asked for help, somehow taking the first step would seem be ‘imposing’ itself upon a community!?! The intention is conscientious, but I believe is a very well meant disaster. If conservation organisations aren’t going to be proactive and push the social benefits of nature to those who would most benefit from them who will? The RSPB and other conservation organisations need to be asserting at every available opportunity that wildlife is free and could/should be available for all. It’s therefore actually more relevant to groups that in some way may be disenfranchised, especially their children whose amazement with wildlife in my experience has nothing to do with their parent’s class or their skin colour. Sadly as things stand that would involve a hundred and eighty degree change in direction for some organisations.

    As an additional note on the poor Mr Cooper who stoically put with ludicrous behaviour and abuse, some right wing podcasters in the U.S.A are now putting it about he initially drew the ‘lady’s’ dog to himself by reaching into his pocket and enticing it with doggie treats, it was therefore a manufactured incident. The desperation and stupidity of this silly story really underlines why race relations in America are so atrocious, too many pathetic bastards incapable of owning up to reality. Recently when Trump was paying a visit to a Ford plant he told the crowd ‘there are lots of good blood lines here’ – a really bizarre remark until you remember Henry Ford was an infamous anti semite and it’s thereby given chilling context. He really is an utterly despicable piece of work and for many people in America and abroad the date in November when he could lose the presidency must be as important as any other one in their calendar.

  3. Well I’m someone who has run a project specifically targeting BAME adults. There have been more than a handful of such projects, not that there isn’t still a long way to go.

    One thing we did in one of my jobs was ask people in the BAME communities (note the plural – someone of Pakistani heritage probably has no more in common with someone of Caribbean heritage than a white traveller does) what might be putting them off using or visiting the countryside (not birdwatching specifically). The results were interesting.

    Top of the list were very positive reasons – proud of a much more extended family life several people said they were far too busy with weddings and parties to go out to the countryside. They were too busy enjoying themselves. Next were some cultural issues; for first generation immigrants “Countryside” equated to the poverty they had emigrated to get away from. In most countries of origin, rural is not an idyll, its a life of toil and low opportunity. Very different to the UK perception (though hidden rural poverty is a serious issue here too its not part of the popular image of pretty villages and rolling hills).

    Over my 30+ years working in conservation and access, I have noticed more and more non white faces in the countryside, and in outdoor pursuits clubs I belong to. At the weekend I was a Lynmouth and in the gorge at least half the groups I met were young BAME (Black and South Asian) adults on a post Lockdown day trip from London. I think its partly a generation thing, becoming more aspirationally middle class and doing what your middle class mates and co-workers do. I wonder if part of the consideration is confusing BAME with working class, because I am sure from my experience that white disadvantaged kids are just as underrepresented as BAME ones.

    Please don’t take any of this as complacency, and I’m certainly not denying that racism (subtle and not so subtle) exists. But it is a more multi faceted problem than is sometimes portrayed. If we want to be proactive, engaging with people from those communities is essential. Doing with not doing to or for. And I think we’d find that the real issues, real racism and disadvantage faced by those individuals, is one of the reasons why they generally aren’t particularly into conservation. They have more important battles to fight, and need real allies for those battles more.

  4. Ornithologist David Lindo, who is of Caribbean descent, has sometimes touched on this in his books and in his column in the RSPB mag.

    Incidentally, he intensely dislikes the term, BAME. Understandably so – is it not patronising, not to say a little bit racist?

    It’s striking that almost all the visitors to Birdfair are white – but many of the exhibitors (especially promoting exotic overseas birding holidays) are black.

    Not sure if the RSPB sets an example on this. Are any of its council members non-white?

  5. I was told a story by a young birder about how he turned up at a twitch when a prominent person in twitching greeted him with “we don’t get many of your kind here”. Not hard to imagine that sort of thing can put you off, especially if the person in question has posted on twitter things about waiting for scientists to split the human race into species like they have with gulls…there is definitely a problem with racism in birding

  6. One of many abiding memories from the excellent ‘Walk for Wildlife’ back in 2018 was the emphasis on welcoming people of all ages, backgrounds, races and religions into the conservation movement.
    I hope the events of the last couple of years have not pushed to one side this and many other worthwhile initiatives and ideas associated with this event and the ‘manifesto’ that sprang from it.

  7. Really good to see you talking about this issue on your blog, Mark.

    Several months later, I’m curious whether you were able to follow up with this conversation in your spheres of influence. For example, I see you are Chair of Trustees with World Land Trust.

    There are several organisations and projects (Black to Nature, Race for Nature’s Recovery, Black Environment Network) around which are working to increase diversity in the sector and make it more inclusive. Have you spoken to WLT and other organisations you are affiliated with about how they can become more diverse and inclusive?

    1. curiousblue – thank you for your first comment here. I have yes. i think the UK conservation movement is very eager to increase diversity amongst its staff and supporters but still slightly unclear about how to do it.

Comments are closed.