Welcoming All to Enjoy Birds and Nature

I think everyone in the bird community has now heard about the incident that took place in Central Park, New York, on May 25. A white woman, Amy Cooper, called the police and falsely accused Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black birder, of threatening her — when in fact he had only asked her to leash her dog, as law requires in that part of the park. For me, the incident brought flashbacks of the numerous times I have been in settings far more isolated than Central Park (carrying binoculars, a camera, backpacks, etc.) but have rarely felt the need to convince anyone that I was just birdwatching.

How would those situations have been different if I was not white? Could I have been arrested, accused of a crime, or would I not have gone in the first place because I knew I could be risking my safety to go birding?

I am the husband of an African-American woman and the father of three biracial teenage sons. We have had “the talk” with our boys, warning them of how to behave around the police to make sure they stay safe. The Central Park incident, and others in which Black people did not survive the ensuing police brutality after being accused, has brought the dangers my sons could face into laser-sharp focus for me.

One of my sons is somewhat of a birder and photographer, and all three accompany me on birding trips at times. It has been a wake-up call for me to realize how precarious it can be for birders of color, when they, like me, are just enjoying the outdoors — something I am generally able to take for granted.

Boreal Owl. Photo by Charlie Parr

The experiences of Christian Cooper, and tragically George Floyd and so many others have — totally unacceptably — been part of life for people of color in America. Now the whole of society, including the bird community, is realizing how often Black people are made to feel excluded, unwelcome, and often unsafe in so many situations.

Sadly, birdwatching is sometimes one of those.

In June, many of the birding community's Black birders responded by organizing the inaugural Black Birders Week. There is a long way to go to make birding safe for and accessible to non-white birders, but this was a great start and challenges all of us with a new call to duty.

In 2019, ABC began work on developing an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Plan. The plan calls for the establishment of a Chief Diversity Officer position at ABC to help lead our efforts to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion within and beyond the organization. We announced the position in July, and I am delighted that we have already begun to receive resumes. We look forward to hearing from anyone interested in applying.

Much of ABC's work is carried on outside the United States, and we are proud to partner with groups across the Americas. Bird conservation must include everyone, and that includes Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Native Americans as well as our Latin American and Caribbean partners and the Indigenous communities they work with and represent.

Saltmarsh Sparrows are found on the eastern seaboard. Photo by When Photographed/Shutterstock

Northern Cardinal. Photo by Charlie Parr

As another step, we are supporting the Bird Names for Birds initiative, which we announced here along with other steps on creating a more just, equitable, and diverse bird community.

Not only is eliminating racism the right thing to do, but it is also critical to the success of the conservation movement. The loss of habitats and wildlife poses serious risks to humans. COVID-19 is evidence of the interconnectedness of nature and human communities worldwide. Humanity's very survival ultimately depends on how well we all succeed in including the whole of society in effective nature conservation.

Today, digital platforms such as eBird and Seek by iNaturalist make access to excellent information about birds and nature easily accessible to everyone, presenting an historic opportunity to engage a much broader cross-section of society in nature study and appreciation. To ensure that this appreciation is fostered and grows, we need to make a conscious and concerted effort to ensure that everyone feels welcomed to the land, parks, and other habitats that we have worked so long and hard to conserve.

ABC's EDI Plan is now nearly complete, and the next chapter of work is set to begin. We will keep you up to date on the steps we are taking to promote diversity and inclusion more widely.

Michael J. Parr is President of American Bird Conservancy.