Black Birders Week kicks off to highlight representation in birding hobby

National movement grew in response to viral 2020 Central Park incident

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — A controversial viral video that garnered national attention two years ago has spawned a national movement to highlight birding while Black.

It's been two years since the video garnered national attention during a time of racial unrest. In it, Amy Cooper, a white woman, calls the police and falsely reports that she's being threatened by Christian Cooper, a Black man of no relation, who was birding in New York's Central Park.

"That broke our hearts," said ornithologist and Philly native Corina Newsome. That event ultimately spawned Black Birders Week, which she co-created that year.

"The summer of 2020 was a rough summer for a lot of folks," said Jason Hall. "I spent all of 2020 thinking about what I could do locally here in this community to change that piece and get more Black and brown folks out into nature and specifically looking at birds."

"The community of Black birders who knew each other basically from social media ... we became aware of it and we're like, 'OK, we need to do something to, first of all, demonstrate that this is not an isolated incident,'" added Newsome.

"This is part of a root of racism that all of us experience in some capacity. And so we wanted to bring awareness to that systemic issue. But then we also wanted to build connection."

"It’s just the idea of, we're out here too," said Sean Stallworth, adult programs coordinator at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Stallworth spearheaded the Philadelphia kickoff event at the museum, bringing together dozens of birders, supporters, and wildlife appreciators alike for an evening of "Black Excellence in Birding."

"It's the also the idea of — if you're not a Black person of color — this is how we feel when we're out here," he added. "Because a lot of times they love being out there with us as well, but they don't know the scrutiny that we face, they don't see it. When you bring it to their attention, it changes things. So it's important to come out and support these kinds of events in the future."

Organizers say it's not just about highlighting the challenges of being Black while birding, but also celebrating the wins. One such victory is for Cooper, who has been tapped to host the upcoming National Geographic series "Extraordinary Birder."

Isaiah Scott at the Academy of Natural Sciences for the Black Birders Week kickoff.
19-year-old birder Isaiah Scott is working on a book about African culture and birds, in addition to his ongoing research into the Gullah-Geechee connection to the land Photo credit Antionette Lee/KYW Newsradio

"It's so beautiful to be able to see out of something that is so jarring, then be able to kind of be a light in such a beautiful way," Stallworth said. "I'm so excited for the world to be able to see what he has to offer."

Another birder being recognized is Isaiah Scott, the 2021 recipient of Drexel University's Eckelberry Fellowship, which will fund his research into the Gullah-Geechee connection to the land. The 19-year-old Scott is in the process of creating a book about African culture and birds, as well as starting his own nature preserve.

"This is just a week to recognize Black voices and birdwatching and to just really say that we're out here. We birdwatch, too, and it's not something that is limited to certain groups of people," he said. "Birds kind of symbolize freedom and liberation for African people in the diaspora."

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