MADISON, Wis. (AP) — “Lifer! Lifer!” Roman Pommerening excitedly pointed to the bright yellow bird flitting through the brush. At just 6 years old, Roman, who has already identified about 100 birds, added the magnolia warbler to his ever-growing list of birds spotted for the first time — or lifers.
Roman may have been one of the younger birders at the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin’s third outing Sunday, but that didn’t stop him from leading the way. The budding ornithologist can differentiate male and female wood ducks based on the whistle of their call and has seen about seven peregrine falcons — his favorite bird and, in his book, “the fastest living thing in the universe.”
“He knows more than all of the adults in our family,” Roman’s mother, Ashley Pommerening, said. “He wants to be an ornithologist so it’s cool to see him connect with other birders, especially other birders of color because this is his passion.”
Sparking such “aha moments” is exactly why Jeff Galligan and Dexter Patterson created the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin. Both avid birders, Galligan and Patterson were often some of the only people of color at various birding events throughout Madison. Then on Juneteenth of this year, they got together and decided to form an organization dedicated to making birding more accessible, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Though still new, the club has already hosted three bird walks and plans to host at least one a month. The club also recently partnered with the Madison chapter of the Feminist Bird Club for “Swift Night Out,” when more than 60 people gathered to watch hundreds of chimney swifts roost at dusk. The walks have drawn about 15-20 people of all ages, experience levels and racial identities. Patterson said each event brings plenty of “new faces.”
“Anybody who is down with equity and inclusion in the outdoors is welcome,” Galligan said. “Up until a year ago, you just didn’t see anything about Black birders, so even if you thought you liked birds, what are you going to do with that? Because nobody who looks like you is doing it.”
The push to create the group came in part from the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, Galligan said. The deaths instilled a “sense of urgency” in Galligan and made him want to give back to his community. Black birders received national attention in June 2020 after a video of a white woman calling the police on a Black man birding in New York City’s Central Park went viral. In response, biology graduate student Corina Newsome organized Black Birders Week — five days of online panels and workshops about diversity in the outdoors.
After seeing the impact of Black Birders Week, Galligan wanted to find a way to make birding more accessible at a local level. Offhand comments and pointed looks have made Galligan feel unwelcome in many birding spaces for over a decade, and he decided it was time to build his own birding community.
“I’ve never felt connected to anything related to birding in this part of the country,” said Galligan, who is originally from Oregon. “That’s bothersome, but the best way to combat that is to do this kind of thing. ... It’s time for people to understand that everybody has a right to our natural spaces.”
Delia Unson and her husband, Chuck Heikkinen, have traveled the world for birds. Unson, who moved to Madison from the Philippines in 1979, has made lifelong friends through birding, but in Madison, Galligan was one of the only other birders of color she would see. The BIPOC Birding Club gave Unson a sense of “camaraderie” she said she hasn’t found in other birding organizations.
Unson said other groups haven’t been as friendly and members stay quiet so as not to scare off birds. But on the trail Sunday, children chased after each other while the adults chatted.
Making birding fun is where Patterson comes in.
A former student of Galligan’s at Madison Area Technical College, Patterson started birding because of the “pandemic push.” Birding got him outside, made him more mindful and helped him lose 40 pounds. Patterson also started making videos for the TikTok app detailing his birding adventures.
“I’m trying to turn it on its head a little bit like, ‘Hey birding is fun. Birding is for everybody. It’s not just old people out in the woods,’” Galligan said. “That’s what it’s all about, getting more Black and brown kids outside to say, ‘Hey this is for you.’”
For Patterson, “birding is bigger than birding.” It helps connect those with similar interests, gives people a stake in protecting animal habitat and can even be a career path, he said. Galligan said part of the club’s goal is to get younger children interested in STEM careers, showing them they can “be anything they want to be” because the sciences can sometimes seem inaccessible.
The immersive nature of birding also makes people more attentive to, and invested in, the environment, Galligan said. In the coming months he hopes to establish the club as a nonprofit so that it can raise money for various conservation efforts.
“When you’re connected to birding, you’re connected to the Earth and its processes and all the things we need to be aware of to protect and maintain it for future generations,” Galligan said. “Everybody’s children or nephews or nieces are inheriting the Earth. It really doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from. So I believe that everybody needs to have a seat at that table.”