For Black birdwatchers, the outdoors is a relaxing space but not one free from racism and discrimination. (Shutterstock)
Birdwatching is open to all. Unless you are Black.
This is the message Christian Cooper received as he was birding in New York City’s Central Park back in June. When Cooper asked a white woman to obey the posted signs regarding off-leash dogs, she called the police, claiming that her life was being threatened by an African American man. Christian Cooper filmed the encounter, which his sister posted online. It went viral, resulting in the woman being fired from her job.
There are different ways of looking at the encounter in the park.
Birdwatching is also a racialized hobby, where whiteness and white privilege work together to keep it non-Black. What this means is that the birders are white, may belong to white birding clubs and go on birding walks in woodsy areas which are seen as white spaces. If they are lucky, they may encounter a Black birder once every decade.
I am a Black birdwatcher, and I am also a researcher whose work focuses on how race shapes conservation, environmentalism and outdoor recreation. These fields are overwhelmingly white and noted for their lack of diversity.
Rules for Black birders
Ornithologist Drew Lanham has written nine rules for Black birders, including: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.” In a recent update, he added: “Roadrunners don’t get gunned down for jogging through neighbourhoods, do they?” These pieces of advice refer to Trayvon Martin, a Black Florida teen killed while wearing a hoodie, and Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man from Georgia slain while running.
Racism in birdwatching is not a new phenomenon. The founder of modern bird conservation, John James Audubon, is rightly praised for his splendid books Birds of America. However, slavery paid for his birding activities: Audubon was born in Haiti and was the heir to a sugar plantation.
On his arrival to the United States in 1803, he remained connected to slavery by buying and selling enslaved people. In fact, Audubon painted birds on a visit to Canada in 1833, the same year that slavery was abolished in Canada and the rest of the British Empire.
In the past, birds were hunted for food and for their feathers. Watching birds for pleasure took off in the early 1800s, as a counter to industrialization and brutish life in the cities. Early birding clubs were formed by and for white people. Modern birding and bird eco-tourism are still dominated by this demographic.
In Black Faces, White Spaces, geographer Carolyn Finney traces how the legacies of slavery warp African American experiences in outdoors recreation. Their visits to national parks are tainted by everyday racism and fears of racial violence; Black people are made to feel unwelcome, and treated as if they are intruders on what is supposedly public space.
In geography, the racialization of space and the spatialization of race describes how Black people are expected to be penned in urban areas paved with concrete, and not in parks and free to enjoy nature. Nature is thus coded as a white space and Black people who venture there are seen as out of place. The same phenomenon occurs in Canada where wilderness and whiteness go together in our land of the Great White North.
The lack of role models is another obstacle to Black people’s participation in birdwatching. In one study, two-thirds of African Americans had never met a birdwatcher. People are less likely to try a new hobby if they don’t see someone like themselves doing so.
In response, Black outdoor activists and enthusiasts have established #BlackBirdersWeek as a social media celebration. According to a statement from former U.S. president Barack Obama, it should not be the new normal, where Black people are harassed in public spaces by white people or the police, including birdwatching in a park.
I got into birding by looking out the window. I saw a flash of crimson and dashed out to check it. I thought the poor bird was spray-painted bright red, as a prank by graffiti artists working on a nearby mural. Then, I spotted another pair of crimson wings. The cardinals sparked my love of birding. I hold on to this moment, this memory of joy, when I think of other Black people’s brush with colour and birdwatching.
The 600 or so soldiers of the 104th trekked across the country to bolster Canadian defenses against an impending United States invasion. This became known as the War of 1812, even though the conflict was spread out over the next two years.
The Black men in the 104th included Harry Grant, Richard Houldin and Henry McEvoy. They are a minor footnote in the War of 1812 and are usually ignored in accounts of the conflict.
The erasure of these Black soldiers of the 104th follows the usual pattern of deleting Black people from the mainstream history of Canada, as their presence or absence raises questions about race and empire, and genocide and slavery.
When Black people are acknowledged, it is usually in reference to the Underground Railroad, and the fugitives’ flight from slavery to freedom in the Great White North. The focus on this part of history ignores the 200 years of slavery in Canada, and how living in its wake continues to shape Black lives today.
With just boots on, with each step, one would sink up to knees or hips in the white stuff. In a different situation, this could be lethal. Cold legs are prone to frostbite and frostbite can end in amputation or death. Snowshoes spread the body’s weight so that one can walk and not sink into the powder, and can travel further with less effort.
On a recent snowshoe hike, I passed through a strand of cedar trees, brushing a few twigs as I trudged by. The trees released a perfume that was fresh and invigorating. In my mind, it is the smell of Christmas.
The men of the 104th also liked the cedars. And not just for the scent. They used the branches to make a bed each evening, as they huddled in a makeshift teepee made from saplings and insulated with branches and moss. A blanket and a fire in the middle kept them warm in the sub-zero nights.
In the images of the campaign, pioneers and later athletes skied, hiked, and tobogganed in a winter wonderland. Almost all the people visible in the advertisement are white. Thus it made an explicit connection between race, winter, and outdoors recreation. It reflected two dominant nationalist mythologies of Canada — as the “the Great White North” and the “great outdoors.”
Snowshoes are cheap to rent at ski resorts and parks and from outdoor recreation stores. Snowshoeing is marketed as a truly Canadian winter sport that is accessible to different age groups, fitness levels, and abilities.
It’s a great way for families to spend a winter day outdoors. The marketing photographs are filled with happy white people, in bright neon-colored jackets, romping in the snow. What is missing from the images are Indigenous, Black, and other people of color. Snow is free, but race plays a role in who is wanted and who gets access to snowshoeing.
The joy of the outdoors
On my snowshoeing ramble, other people were racing through the woods. They were snowshoe runners, dressed in light running gear. Lots of lycra and color. They shouted greetings as they sailed by.
Something was drilling in the woods. I followed my ears, swiveled my head, and spotted a hairy woodpecker getting its lunch of grubs out of the bark of a tree. The little patch of red on the back of its head was a bold splash of natural color in a landscape of white snow and beige trees.
I snowshoed about 3.7 miles on my minuscule trek that day. And then I was done. Tired, ready for hot chocolate and cake in a warm café.
The Black soldiers and their fellow 104th snowshoers would have taken about two hours to do that distance. They had 621.3 miles to snowshoe. One day I plan to recreate their historic feat as part of my project of mapping how race intersects with outdoor recreation, geography, and adventure travel.