NEW HOPE, Pa. (AP) — The female belted kingfisher had paused on top of a cattail, its blue plumage and regal crest of feathers as striking as its calls. Tykee James was riveted.
“I realized, ‘there’s something happening there,’” said James. “There can be a strong relationship between people and parks.”
James, one of the co-founders of the inaugural Black Birders Week movement on social media this year, described the moment to the Bucks County Audubon and Bucks County Birders recently as part of an ongoing discussion about racial disparities in birding and environmental communities.
That moment with the kingfisher, said James, sparked what would become a lifelong practice of interpreting ecology through birds. But at the time, as a 17-year-old on his first assignment for his job as a paid educator at Cobbs Creek Park in Philadelphia, birding was just a job, a way to make money while finishing his senior year of high school.
“When I was telling neighbors to go in the park and watch birds (with me) — the first thing they think of isn’t birds,” said James. “This was the same neighborhood where the MOVE bombing had happened, where there was a legacy of neglect and police violence.”
The conversation around unequal access to and engagement with nature is not a new one for James, but the coronavirus pandemic and recent widespread protests for racial justice have served as a catalyst for community organizations like Bucks County Birders to re-assess their strategies for increasing diversity and inclusion in what has been a historically white-dominated hobby.
“It’s difficult or uncomfortable to have the conversation around shifting power, but the status quo is unsustainable for the birding community,” said James. “If this beautiful exercise of engaging with nature only belongs to a minority of people, we have to think in this moment to make sure it’s something future generations can enjoy.”
James said a number of cultural barriers continue to stand in the way of aspiring black birders. Beyond the economic challenges — it takes a certain amount of financial stability to spend a day off watching birds — the practice often asked him to enter spaces where he felt unsafe or uncomfortable.
Those safety concerns were brought to center stage in May, through a nationally publicized incident in which a white woman called police on a Black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park. In areas where the majority of the population is white, said James, the possibility of his presence as a Black man being misconstrued as a threat could have dangerous consequences.
But additionally, James noted, the “Jackie Robinson effect” of being one of the only Black birders at a birding festival or on a bird walk often meant that he was tasked with carrying the weight of how people viewed the entire Black community.
“People feel license to say things that they may not mean derogatorily, but it is definitely taken as a pejorative (term). When people call me a ‘rare bird’...That’s not my name. That’s not why I’m here. I’m not here to be your rare bird sighting,” said James.
Now, though, local birding groups are seizing on the moment to make sure James’ experience is not repeated for the next generation. Though the board of Bucks County Birders is more diverse than ever before, the organization’s leadership wants to foster not only a better understanding of the barriers to inclusivity but also to take tangible steps to remove them.
“We had to do something actively,” said Vinobha Pannerselvam, president of Bucks Birders. “It’s nothing political, it’s about doing what’s right. So we wanted to put out a statement and have a conversation.”
As part of that ongoing process, the organizations have put in plans of action on levels ranging from equipment access to group facilitation on walks. For those who might have difficulty securing the necessary tools to view birds, the groups want to expand access to free binoculars or kits (complete with field guides and maps of local parks) through community outreach or local library programs.
And on walks, even something as simple as restructuring the formation of the group—allowing for individuals with guidebooks to be placed more strategically alongside those who don’t — can make the difference between connecting with the local environment and missing that chance.
“We live in a generation where we’re starting to see a change in the culture and expectations of the birding community,” said James.
Though the pandemic has moved much of that culture online, James is optimistic that progress will continue to be made through Zoom meetings and online videos. On the other hand, he emphasized that because birding can be safely conducted while practicing social distancing, there’s hope for a new crowd of curious naturalists to pick up the hobby solo.
No matter how or where they turn their eyes to the skies, James thinks changing the face of birding is critical for achieving racial and environmental justice.
“Birders have a very important role in this time, to say what our futures can and should be,” said James. “Watching birds ... has the ability to connect with people everywhere.”
Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com