Thumbnail image: Charley Hesse/Macaulay Library
[Deja Perkins]: Hello, everybody. Welcome to part 3 of the social experiences in birding, cultural connections. And Happy Black Birders this week, 2022. This is the third part of our social experiences series. And I’m so happy to have all of you all here and tuning in. Whether you all are here in the Zoom room with us, or if you are watching on Facebook, or if you are watching this recorded session in future viewings. We are so happy to have you here and have you share this experience with us.
Today, we will be exploring what is like birding internationally. Today, our panelists will share stories of their experiences birding in other countries, and take a bird’s eye view of the current structure of birding culture. We’ll explore what exactly is birding culture, and discuss the culture of birding as a whole, and what we would like to see shift to make it more accepting of the various cultural connections that people have with birds.
Our panelists today will share stories of how they bring their own culture into the birding experience, and how our cultural connections to birds might shape our birding journey. Before we get started today, I would like to say thank you to all of our sponsors for Black Birders Week 2022. And give a special shout out and special thank you to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who is helping to support this panel.
Today, we will have two panelists with us. We have Jason Collins. Jason is a hobbyist photographer and lifelong birder. Professionally, he has worked in student affairs for almost 10 years. His interest in birds began when a northern cardinal landed outside of his window. Jason picked up bird photography about six years ago, and he is searching for opportunities to capture new species. He’s always searching for those opportunities.
Jason’s photography has been published in a Cornell Lab of Ornithology field guide, and it has also been featured on the National Audubon society’s website and social media. Recently, Jason has combined his passions for birding and international travel. Some of his favorite destinations for birds are Columbia, Kenya, and Costa Rica. Overall, he has traveled to 30 countries and does his best to go birding on every trip.
Our second panelist for today is Chelsea Connor. Chelsea grew up in the Caribbean, and it was a very formative experience. She got to see and learn about a wide range of unique biodiversity. She especially felt a connection with the birds and lizards from her home island of Dominica. Currently a grad student, her love for nature has taken her on a journey she’s never experienced.
And above it all, she has focused on sharing that love with others. You can follow her on social media for more outdoor adventures in #blackinnatureinsights. Chelsea is also one of our Black Birders Week 2022 co-organizers. We’re so happy to have both of our panelists here to share their insights. Welcome, Jason and Chelsea. Hey, all.
[Chelsea Connor]: Thank you so much for having me.
[Jason Collins]: Hi, everyone.
[Chelsea Connor]: Hi.
[Deja Perkins]: All right, so let’s get started and jump into some icebreakers. With you all’s experience going birding in different countries, I have to ask, what has been your favorite place to go birding? And what about that location made it your favorite? And let’s start with Chelsea.
[Chelsea Connor]: OK, so I would have to say– it’s kind of a tie for me. Because recently, I went to England, so I really liked birding from the train because it goes to the countryside. You get to see a lot of really cool birds there. It’s still taking me some time to recognize the ones I’ve taken pictures of, because it’s a whole new country. But that was a really great birding experience for me.
But also really sentimental place is this mangrove back home. There’s like yellow warblers, and herons, and a lot of other really cool species that I love seeing. So it’s a tie between those two for me.
[Deja Perkins]: That’s really cool. It’s always fun to go exploring in new places, and I just know how difficult it must be birding by train, or by car because everything whoops by so fast. So I can only imagine how it might be trying to identify those bird photos.
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah.
[Deja Perkins]: Jason, how about you?
[Jason Collins]: I think for me my favorite place is probably Kenya at this point. I’m kind of like Chelsea, I’m kind of stuck between two places. But Kenya, I think is in the lead right now. I’ve been there twice, and each time I’ve gotten a lot of good species. In the second time I went, I was there in April and I got a lot of birds that I’ve always wanted to see as a kid.
So birds like the African paradise flycatcher, the hamerkop, and the secretary bird, I got all those on the same day there in Kenya. Like, I was really excited to finally get secretary bird. I saw two of them at the same time. It was– I couldn’t believe like I almost forgot to take pictures, that like I was just like I couldn’t believe they were just strolling the savanna right in front of me and kicking things and trying to eat it. So it was definitely a cool experience.
And then I think it’s kind of Costa Rica. If you’ve never heard it in Costa Rica, it’s incredible. There’s just so many birds and there almost seem to be so habituated to humans that they don’t even care that you’re there. Everybody down there just seems to be really connected with nature, and it kind of is reflected in the birds and the way they behave around people.
So if you’re a photographer, it’s really good for getting shots. And I mean, it’s just an incredible experience down there. And the birds are all so colorful and just– there’s so many different species that you can see in a very small space. You can see a lot of different species. So I really loved being in Costa Rica too.
[Deja Perkins]: Wow, that is really cool. I cannot imagine being able to see a secretary bird in person, that’s definitely on my bucket list. And I have–
[Chelsea Connor]: I’m jealous, honestly, because– I saw one at the San Diego Zoo and it was beautiful. It was amazing. But there’s something different about seeing a bird like in the wild, and its natural habitat. That’s–
[Jason Collins]: Yeah, it was awesome, for sure.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, it’s definitely a different experience. I can think of all the times that I’ve seen birds at the zoo, like toucans, and just like cranes. And it’s one thing to see them kind of like through the fencing, but it’s an entirely different experience to see them in person in their natural habitat. And it’s just– wow, I can’t even imagine. Jason, where can viewers go to see some of your bird photography?
[Jason Collins]: Oh, they can go to my Instagram, and it’s @casonjollins. So Jason Collins but with the J and the C mixed up. So yeah, @casonjollins is where you can see my photography.
[Deja Perkins]: Awesome, thank you.
[Jason Collins]: Thanks.
[Deja Perkins]: Chelsea, can you tell us a little bit more about what it’s like birding from your home island of Dominica? Like what is that– what does that mean to you? What is that experience like for you?
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah, so honestly, living on an island it’s really easy to see birds. We have a lot of folklore associated with birds as well. So there’s some of them that you can hear calling at sunrise, and their stories about why they do that. So literally when I wake up, I already know that there’s birds around, I can see them flying overhead. My house is like near a river, so I get to see a lot of herons go by, which is really cool. But I’m also like near the beach at the same time. So I can see the frigatebirds from my house sometimes as well.
And then just like when I would go to my grandmother’s house, she would have sugar out to feed bananaquits. There are these little yellow passerine green birds and they’re amazing. I love them. They have a lot of attitude. They will steal the sugar if you don’t leave it out for them. [CHUCKLES] And they’re called sugar thieves on a lot of other islands because of that, exactly.
And it’s just like anywhere you go you’re liable to see a lot of really cool birds. And a lot of people don’t even like refer to themselves as birders because it’s just normal to just be outside, and it’s normal to just watch animals. So like you see a bird flying around and it’s normal to just stop sometimes, and just be like, oh, hey, look at that bird, what is it doing?
I remember every single time I’ve seen an osprey back home and if I’m with people, we all just got to stop, we look over at it and say, oh, look at that, do you see that? It’s so cool. Seeing the fishermen interact with a magnificent frigatebirds and other seabirds because sometimes they’re like, bring in their catch and they’re– the birds are hounding them, and they’re like throw out the smaller fish for them. And it’s just like that relationship with the environment. So it’s just every– I feel like every time I go somewhere, every time I do something, there’s some way I get to see a bird and I get to see how people interact with it.
[Deja Perkins]: Wow, that sounds so magical. And I love that for you and in your hometown there is that people have that natural relationship with nature. It’s almost– it seems like there is everyone sees himself as a part of nature. And instead of outside of nature, it’s like I feel like here in the US, most people kind of see nature as this other thing. But like what you described just now was so beautiful and magical, just seems like everyone is a part of nature itself.
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah, it’s pretty normal for you to have an owl, or geckos in your house all the time. Snakes come in and you got to get them out. [LAUGHS] It’s just like, it’s a part of life.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah. Jason, I’m curious if you have traveled anywhere where you have seen a similar experience or experience the same where the local community just was a part of nature, and everyone just kind of stopped to observe birds. Or was it kind of where you kind of the odd person out observing birds?
[Jason Collins]: I would say that most of the time that I’ve gone birding, it’s been either just kind of on my own while I’m there or I’m on Safari, or I have hired like a guide or something like that. So I haven’t necessarily seen too much of locals interacting. I did have a similar experience like Chelsea was describing. I went to the Galapagos and there are a lot of fishermen there, and on the kind of like the ports where they’re bringing in the fish, they’re birds surrounding it. And they were kind of interacting with the birds and it was like, I guess it was a great blue heron, it was just sitting there waiting.
And every once in a while they throw the fish, and then you had– she said the magnificent frigatebirds, like I wish I had my camera that day but I didn’t. And I was just going to walk around and like, I’ll never forget like a male came down and was just hovering over this table. Like if you’ve ever seen how large a magnificent frigatebird is when it has its wings like fully extended and it’s just like hovering over it. And they throw it a fish and it just kind of like flies off, and then comes back for more, and it’s just like I don’t know if they’re just trying to appease it so it doesn’t attack them. But it’s just very– to just see them interact with such a bird like that was just pretty cool.
Then one other thing I can remember was in India, it was just in the middle– I’m not sure what city I was in, but there– and I’m not sure what species they were but there are some species of kite. And there are so many of them flying down and swooping to get– I think there are pieces of meat from like a barbecue or something. They’re grilling something and all the kites are just flying down and getting food from these people that were giving them food. And I thought that was incredible too. So I guess those are two examples of when I’ve seen locals interacting with the wildlife and with the birds, at least.
[Deja Perkins]: Wow.
[Jason Collins]: Yeah.
[Deja Perkins]: I feel like that experience you describe in India with the kites, I feel like there may be a festival or something. Like I feel like I recall seeing some type of– like National Geographic show or a YouTube video about that same experience. It’s not coming to my head right now, but it sounds– that sounds so familiar.
And you’ve gone birding in so many different locations, just that experience with the frigatebird, seeing a frigate bird that close up I can only imagine. I’ve seen them soaring overhead. But just super high in the sky, I love– I personally love birding in the Caribbean. I just love the warm water, I love that there are so many shorebirds and wading birds, and so many colorful birds and I just– I don’t know the experience for me birding in the Caribbean, is just so much different, especially like being surrounded by people who look like me and– yeah, everybody just has a closer kind of attachment and connection to nature when I go to the various places in the Caribbean.
But Jason, I’m curious. You’ve been so many places, can you give us maybe like the top five best places for birding? And maybe from your list, and maybe the worst places that you’ve been?
[Jason Collins]: OK, so I guess the best place is definitely like Kenya is up there. Like I said, I really love Costa Rica, I love Colombia, for birding. Where else am I going that’s really good? Tanzania was really good. Where else would I go that was good? Sri Lanka was really good, Sri Lanka had a lot of birds. There I really liked Sri Lanka too.
In terms of worse, I’d say I struck out really hard in Iceland. I wasn’t necessarily trying to go bird, I went off season like in the winter, so I knew I wasn’t going to see that very man birds. And I did it, I probably saw a couple of species. Like it was rough. But that wasn’t really what I was there for. Where else was rough? I was in Jordan, didn’t see very many birds. I did see their national bird, I think it’s called the Sinai rosefinch. I got a decent picture of that, so I was happy with that.
Yeah, I think those are probably the two that stand out that wasn’t really great in. But at the same time, it wasn’t my intention to really bird, but I always bring my camera and I’m always looking. And in some places that you go, there’s just birds everywhere. But those two places I didn’t see very many. And it’s not the same that there aren’t birds there, it’s just I didn’t see any. So yeah.
[Deja Perkins]: So when you’re going and visiting these different locations and this is for both Chelsea and Jason, what are some of the tools and resources that you use? Like how do you set up that experience when you’re going someplace that’s different for the first time? You don’t know anybody there, how do you– like what is that experience? Like are you nervous? Are you– do you feel safe when you’re going into other countries and new locations to go birding? What tools and resources do you take with you and you just to make sure you have an overall good experience?
[Chelsea Connor]: Well, when I’m birding back home, I definitely feel safe. I go a lot of places on my own. If I am doing a trail though, I don’t go alone, because it’s like the nature of hiking. You don’t want to do a trail by yourself. But like going to England, it was kind of scary. It’s like all right, I’ll find myself in this big country. To help me identify the birds, I got a bird guide, a digital bird guide specifically for England.
And having that was great, but I always made sure whenever I stopped to get out my binoculars somewhere, I always made sure that I was in a well-lit open area, middle of the day. I was probably near where the conference was happening or if I was somewhere else that it’s very obvious what I’m doing, because I didn’t want to get singled out for anything as we know.
Coming to America, the way that I adjusted to this is I have a bunch of bird guides. I have one that I actually genuinely use all the time, but I also got a bunch of vintage ones as well because the way that they depict the birds changes from time to time. And I just kind of like seeing, that helps me adjust to them because they capture different things.
So I look through those every now and then, and just try to familiarize myself with the birds that would be where I am. Like right now I’m in South Carolina, so I look up birding maps and these birds should be here in this area, what bird should I be seeing? When I went over to San Diego, I did the same thing. Like, OK, what are all the birds are going to be here? The hummingbirds might be a bit hard for me to figure out, but I know that there’s going to be hummingbirds. So there’s thought at least.
And just being really patient with myself. I don’t expect to get every single bird right immediately. But making sure that I have a buddy or someone knows where I’m going, and just giving myself time to figure out what bird it is. And even if I haven’t figured it out yet, then that’s fine. I still got to see it and that was fun.
[Deja Perkins]: Jason, how about you? And I’m thinking, especially when you go to places where maybe you don’t speak the language.
[Jason Collins]: Yeah, so a lot of times if I’m going somewhere where I’m really planning to bird, I will try to find someone who offers day tours. Because there are a lot of people that just kind of do bird tours on their own, which is something that we might want to explore ourselves here in the States.
Like being able to do that when visitors come from other places and want to see birds because we know the places to go. So sometimes I hire people like a guide to take me around. And that’s really helpful because they know all the places to go, they know what species that can expect to see, and things like that. If it’s somewhere that’s a lot more accessible, then like for example last weekend I was in British Columbia, in Vancouver, so I went to just a couple of random parks that I could go to and just went birding on my own kind of casually and just figured out what I could see.
But I would say, for the most part I either will hire like someone that does a day tour or something like that, or something– or sometimes it’s like included in whatever I’m doing. Like a Safari or something like that. So it’s– I do some pre-planning, basically, is what I’m saying. And just kind of set up my trip around the birding that I want to do, and then I kind of go from there. And anything else, it’s just like I can figure out a place where I want to go, and I can get there and I’ll just bird by myself is basically what I would do.
And in terms of identifying birds, I just take pictures of them, usually, and then I call them back home. And I’ll be like, how many hummingbirds in Costa Rica? And like, the species will pop-up and it’s just kind of like a fun thing that I have to figure out, which one it is or– but sometimes it’s pretty challenging because I don’t even like– I have some birds, I’m going to have to ask some people that are in those places what they are because I’ll type in like, finch in Kenya and I have no idea what it is. So sometimes it’s a little difficult, but it’s kind of a part of the challenge to figure out what some of these bird species are.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, that sounds– that actually sounds like a lot of fun. The challenge of taking photos while you’re there, and not only just capturing the memory of the place and the bird, but going back and challenging yourself to try and find– and trying to figure out what that ID is.
Chelsea, I’m curious, what was that experience like for you transitioning to the US and going birding here versus going birding at home? I know you said birding at home you felt safe. And aside from going on trails where you would buddy up for safety, and I know you have pretty much lived in the south since you’ve been here or this– I don’t know if Texas is considered the South or the West, but–
[Chelsea Connor]: I feel like Texas is the South, it’s not– I’m not the person who would know. [LAUGHS] I consider Texas the South because it’s south. But I realized that the regions of America are not according to direction. So that’s been really confusing for me.
[Deja Perkins]: Curious, like how is that transition for you? Like have you felt like you’ve had the same experience birding in both locations? Have you felt that same sense of safety or has there been a difference in the birding culture back home versus here in the US?
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah, birding back home has always been really relaxing. I can just walk to the beach and it’s like, oh, look at the pelicans, and look at the magnificent frigatebirds. Or I can go to the river and if there is an osprey coming through, it stops and grab some fish. And it’s like that’s great, there’s yellow warblers, there’s a bunch of birds I can just like sit next to the river and see all of the herons and everything.
Birding in America feels like a sport. [LAUGHS] So OK, I have my list. This is what we need to see. [LAUGHS] Oh, we’re doing a list? Oh, OK. I was just– I just coast on vibes. I’m just like I don’t know whatever birds want to vibe with me today, that’s the birds I’m vibing with, I guess. But it’s definitely been like an adjustment. I still definitely bird the way that I want to bird. But it’s just really interesting to see some people go, OK, yeah, let’s go, I need to see 20 species today. And I’m like– [LAUGHS] I’m fine if I see like a hawk, because hawks are cool, I like that.
And I don’t understand why it’s competitive either. Like I am a competitive person, but I don’t understand why birding specifically is competitive. So that’s a weird disconnect for me. I just stick with birding leisurely the way that I would like to, that I would like to go birding. If I go check the mail and I see a robin, I’m like really excited and go, look at these robins, they’re so silly, I love them. Like just seeing birds in general is cool.
And regarding safety, I definitely do not go birding alone anywhere at all in America. I do not feel like I’m able to do that, unless I’m just like walking around on my own. Like if I walk to the grocery store or something because there’s one nearby in my apartment, I can walk over and do that. And I look at birds on the way, and there are like crows and hawks that I can see sometimes when I’m doing that, and that’s fine. But to say that I’m going to– I’m going to be out with my binoculars by myself, I do not feel comfortable doing that at all.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, and that piece you said about competitive birding, it’s definitely a thing here in the US. Having the World Series of birding. And I was also kind of introduced to birding in a competitive way. Just the concept of a beak year, and a year where you try and see as many birds as you can. And that’s a really stressful and hard task to do. And not to mention that you have to have the resources to even be able to do that, to just be able to travel a lot, and just–
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah.
[Deja Perkins]: And just get as many birds as possible. But I– just from the research that I’ve done, I have seen that there are differences between men and women in their birding experiences and how they like to go birding. And that competitive nature of birding is more likely associated with men, whereas leisurely birding and backyard birding and things like that are more so associated with women.
Jason, have you felt like that has been your experience? Are you more of a competitive birder or are you more of a leisurely birder, or a mix of both? And in your travels, have you seen that it’s been kind of that way? Is there more men, more women, and is it more leisurely and more competitive? How has that been?
[Jason Collins]: Yes, I would say for me, my birding– I’ve birded since I was a kid and I kind of never really got into– I don’t know if it was always a thing but doing the whole checklist and having like a written life list, I never got into that. I kind of wish I had done maybe written down species and things like that, but I never got around to it. And I don’t– I rarely use eBird, but definitely I see a lot of people that seem to be competitive with it. And it’s kind of like I’ve got however many species today, but that’s to kind of gamify. Maybe that’s what people are into that makes it a little bit more fun.
But no, I don’t really do that. I would say for me, I’m more of on the side of like bird photography. It’s like if I find one species that’s cool with me being around it, and I can just sit there and wait to get a good shot of it. I’m happy with just seeing one species in that day. You know what I mean? Like I’ll be like, oh, there were hundreds species around me, but I got a good shot of this one. So that’s cool too.
In terms of abroad, I would say like a lot of the bird guys that I’ve hired they’re really into like eBirding and listing, and doing checklists and things like that. And they’re always like, I’ll send you the checklist right now. And it’s like there’s no rush, like it’s fine. Like I’m not trying to– I mean, but it’s cool that they’ll do that for you and send it so you know all the species that you’ve seen because I’m definitely not doing it myself.
It’s more something I just kind of remember. I feel like I remember what I was seeing. I think I’m pretty good at doing that, but yeah, I’m not competitive at all with it. But I think that part of birding culture has spread or it definitely exists across the globe. At least where I’ve been maybe being a little bit competitive and definitely documenting everything that you’ve seen in a day for sure.
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah, I have definitely seen the competitive birding back home. But it’s when tourists come up with a bird. Because I know the– I’ll say ‘the’ because he’s like when we think of birds back home, we think of Dr. Birdie. That’s his nickname. And he’s just really chill about it too.
So I guess birding for Islanders is just really chill thing. We go out, we see some birds, maybe we don’t, it’s fine. But I understand some people might want to gamify it, that may make it fun for them but in general, having a competitive birding culture just feels really weird to me. It doesn’t feel very easy for someone to get into when you make it a competition.
And– excuse me. You mentioned eBird, I don’t use eBird because I always feel like, oh, man. OK, I got to start the walking, we’re going to look at how many species I’m seeing. It’s like, OK, that’s not for me, I use Audubon. I use Audubon app because it helps me identify birds and then I don’t put in like every single species I see. If I see something really cool, I’m like, ooh, I want to remember that I saw this and where I saw this. So I’ll put that in. So it’s just me keeping track of, this was a new thing that I saw and this is where I saw it in case I want to come back and look at it again.
[Deja Perkins]: Awesome, I appreciate both of you all for sharing that because it’s definitely– I think a little bit different than my experience. I’m definitely an eBirder. And eBird is a free app that you can download onto your phone. And I use it because I liked to be able to keep track of how I’m doing. It’s for me, it’s a personal thing. I don’t really care about how many birds other people are seeing, but I’m curious for myself.
Like, oh, how many birds am I seeing from year-to-year? From comparing the different months from year-to-year or even just keeping track of my own list, especially when I see a new bird and I want to make sure that I know because I have memory problems. So I definitely need some way to keep track.
And I know I always have my phone on me. So for me, I definitely use eBird. But I would say there are times when I’m birding, and if I’m hearing birds that I hear all the time or I’m more familiar with, or sometimes I might not do an eBird list that day. Or I might unless I see something that I haven’t seen in the year yet, like if it’s my first of the year bird or a new– like I said, a new species, then I’ll be like, OK, now I have to do a list and then I make sure I catalog everything.
But I definitely appreciate you all sharing and giving that insight into what birding has been like competitiveness here in the US versus in other places. I’m wondering if there is anything else about birding culture or just when you think about the culture of birding, is there anything in particular that you think of? And if there are things specific to the US that you think of or there are things specific to other countries that you think of, but what do you think of when you think of birding culture?
[Chelsea Connor]: When I think of birding culture, I think about the bird guides that I have from my home island. I have– there’s two different versions that I have but both of them include the– we speak Lesser Antillean Creolean on my island, so they include those Lesser Antillean Creole names for the birds.
And one of them includes folklore about them to you and just stories in general about birds from different parts of the island, or the island as a whole, as well as what they could find that the Kalinago people had for stories about birds as well. And if you don’t know, the Kalinago people are one of the many indigenous people who originally found the islands in the Caribbean, and have been living there since like the 15th century or something. They’ve been there a long time, basically, is what I’m try to say.
So they also have folklore, about the birds and different animals on the islands as well. So as much as the writers could find that history and they included that in there as well, which is amazing. And they’re out of print right now. So I’m really careful with my copies, but being able to have that every time I think about birding culture I think about back home. And I think about that, and I think about growing up when I hear different birds. Me and my mom sometimes in addition to being near a beach in the river, there’s like a patch of mango trees. So I’m sure I’m describing it in such a way that everyone is like, oh, you’re just living the perfect life on the island.
[Deja Perkins]: It does sound like it, sounds great.
[Chelsea Connor]: The library is near my house too. It’s a really good spot. I’ve been within walking distance of so much. And we would just walk over to the mango trees, and we’d hear different birds. And she’d be like, oh, it’s this– and it’s calling because of just telling me those stories, or I’d wake up in the morning and she’d be like, did you hear that? And I’m like, what are you talking about? She’s like, oh, this bird means that someone in the neighborhood has passed or someone’s going to pass. There’s superstitions around that too.
And I wouldn’t say that I’m like a superstitious person, I don’t think. Maybe I am and I just don’t realize it, but because those were formative parts of my experience, those stories stay with me. So every time I hear something similar or hear or see a similar bird, some of the herons that I’ve seen in America or some of the same herons I see back home. I see them, I remember those stories and just remember those connections as well. So that’s what I think about.
[Deja Perkins]: I love that you bring those stories with you wherever you go. And before we move on to hear Jason’s answer, Chelsea, I want you to think about maybe one folklore story you can think of that really stands out that you could share with us. Because I’m really curious to hear about that. So Jason, what do you think when you think of birding culture?
[Jason Collins]: I guess for me, I kind of think of just people waking up really early and driving probably far too. Like some trail or lake, or something to see some species that they heard about that may be there, it may not still be there. I don’t know. People that– people with binoculars and people that use alpha codes when they write things about birds.
But I think honestly now, that’s kind of changing because at least for me, looking at what birding culture is at least on Instagram and social media, maybe even Twitter, I don’t use it that much but I’m sure it’s similar. The work that you guys have been doing with Black Birders Week, I feel like it’s really changed the landscape of the culture at least in my opinion because when I first got on Instagram, it was totally different, in my opinion.
And now it’s like my page is filled with all types of people, and people that are Black people that are in different types of communities. And it’s just everyone is birding, at least on my fete. It’s just kind of one of those things. Even if it’s just for me, it’s changed my view of what birding culture is because I’ve been exposed to so much more just based on being involved with Black Birders Week.
So I think that as this continues to grow as it hopefully will, I think this is really actually changing the landscape overall for birding culture and exposing people to a lot more. I mean, that’s what I think now. It’s just my opinion of birding culture has changed from especially when I was a kid, to being an adult before I was exposed to Black Birders Week. And now it’s just night and day, basically.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, I love how different your perspectives are. And Jason, I totally agree with you. Being born here in the US, I definitely have that. That was my thought of what birding culture was. Like very scientific–
[Jason Collins]: Yeah.
[Deja Perkins]: –using codes. It’s like chasing rare birds. And I did not identify with that. When I first before I knew I was– called myself a bird watcher, like I did not– because I didn’t identify with that. I didn’t– I don’t think I’ve ever gone and maybe once, I think there was a red phalarope that someone had seen. And that was the one time I went. And I didn’t see it, and I was like, well, that was a waste of my time and my gas, so I’m never doing that again.
And I think I love that Black Birders Week has done that for you that has connected you with so many other people. And you can see how people are birding in other countries. Because social media can be a bubble. And depending on who you follow, you just kind of create your own world of what you’re seeing.
And I love that through Black Birders Week, even I have connected with birders in other countries. And getting to see the birds where they’re from, and how they go birding, and what they wear, and what their experiences are like for them is definitely opened up my view. And I feel so much more connected to people. That’s definitely a question I get.
Like, oh, like how do birds connect people? And it’s just like, I mean, social media has allowed– Black Birders Week has allowed me to connect with so many other people and just see what those experiences are like. There are a lot of places that I probably won’t get to travel to, so that’s really cool that Black Birders Week has helped us do that.
And I encourage everyone watching live and in the future to do the same, follow the #blackinnature. Connect, follow with those Black Birders in other countries and Black Birders even here in the US to hear about their experiences. I think that is one of the main goals and purposes of Black Birders Week. Is just to expose people to our perspectives. And not just the US American focused perspective, but perspective of birders from all over the world. And I think that is something so unique. And the only way that we can be connected to each other and more open to other people is by following them and hearing their experiences.
So I encourage all of our audience members to do that as well. Chelsea, we’re going to take a step back and go back to that awkward question. Do you have any– have you thought about one of the folklore tales you’d like to share with us?
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah, and I actually just grabbed one of my guides off my shelf because I’m sitting on my desk, so I have them all like stacked here. And I’m glad that you mentioned driving to places as part of the birding culture here. Because I don’t have a car, so I have to be like, man, do I know anyone who’s like free and wants to go check out a bird way over there?
So it’s like that’s another like layer of complication for me. Because I just want to be somewhere I can just walk over and see some cool birds. But America is like centered around driving. And I can’t drive, I just– cars are expensive. So I don’t have one right now, so it’s just a whole thing. So this one, this back to the folklore, this is Antillean crested hummingbird, and hopefully I can show you the– if it lets me. It’s not letting me, I’m so sorry. Oh, you can kind of see–
[Jason Collins]: We got to.
[Chelsea Connor]: –it there. You saw it for a brief minute. I’m so sorry. You can Google it. It’s Antillean crested hummingbird, and they’re called that because the males have this crest on their heads made of iridescent feathers, they’re beautiful. I love them. They’re endemic to the Caribbean. I’m not sure exactly how many islands they’re on but they’re definitely on mine and Guadalupe, I remember that much.
They have a long list of Lesser Antillean Creole names. On my island because it depends on where you are on the island what they call them. One of those is T-cap, which just means little cap in Creole, very creative.
So this legend is actually from Kalinago culture. So it says, once upon a time, there was a girl who was– a Kalinago girl who was visited by an unknown man and she got pregnant. And her mother asked for someone to keep watch over her. And then when the guy returned, they threw some juice from a fruit on him, and the next day they were able to recognize him and he was so embarrassed that he withdrew to the sky. And the child who was born became the founder of the Kalinago nation, and a hummingbird was chosen to take him to the sky to see his father. And it was this hummingbird and to give it the little cap as a gift for doing that.
[Deja Perkins]: Wow, that’s really cool. I love how it was just luscious entwined within your culture back home. And I wish that I had that type of connection here with birds in the US, kind of that family and kind of the original– like that history we just don’t have that here just because of the way that the US was colonized and created. If we just– so it’s very much a missed opportunity for us here.
So thank you so much for sharing that story with us. And I’m curious, before we get into the audience Q&A, is there anything that you all would like to see change I guess within the larger culture of birding?
[Chelsea Connor]: Oh, that’s a really good question.
[Jason Collins]: I mean–
[Chelsea Connor]: Oh, go ahead, Jason.
[Jason Collins]: I mean, I was just going to say I think that kind of piggybacking off of what I said earlier. It’s just like people knowing that other races bird other than white people. But I think that’s happening now. One thing I did want to share was that I birded at one time in Greece and I had hired a guide. And he was very interested in how life was for me as a Black person in the United States, which was interesting to me that he was interested.
And so, he said that I was the first Black person that he’d ever seen or ever taken to go birding. So he was just intrigued and wondered why more Black people didn’t bird in the US. But one thing that happened was we were driving and we got pulled over. And so, the Greek police asked me to get out and asked for our IDs, and things like that. And they’re speaking Greek, so I didn’t know what was going on. Luckily, I had brought my passport.
And when we got back in the car, he was like, the guy said that never happens. And I was like, what do you mean? He was like, they weren’t asking about me, they were asking about you and what you were doing here, and why you were wherever you were, where I was, and what we were doing, basically. And he was like that never happens, I really think we got pulled over because you’re Black.
And I was just like, I don’t know– he couldn’t believe and I was like, yeah, it happened. So it just kind of one of those things I think even when you’re abroad, those types of things can happen. So you kind of have to be ready for it. But you don’t want to get locked up abroad, so just kind of definitely be on your P’s and Q’s. But it’s just one of those things where it’s like, I don’t feel like people know that Black people bird too. So I think it’s still something that is still growing and people will understand more with things like Black Birders Week, basically.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, wow. That’s actually terrifying I am– I’m very– I feel very uncomfortable around police and I can only imagine how that experience was in another country. Because like you said, getting locked up abroad would not be– that would not be all right. That would be terrifying. Woo, sorry, I just need a moment. Like I’m so sorry that happened to you.
And it’s really disheartening to know that those experiences happen here in the US but they also happen abroad in other countries. And that is definitely one of the reasons why we’ve done– put together Black Birders Week. Is just to highlight that these experiences do happen, and it’s not right because we are exploring public places just like everybody else.
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah. Even recently I saw a TikTok of a professional wildlife photographer who’s Black. And he was just at a National Park literally taking pictures because there’s nothing but green where his camera is pointing and he’s like, yes, several white people stopped asking me, like what are you doing? What do you mean what am I– I have this giant camera, I’m looking at the lens, what do you think I’m doing? What else could I possibly be doing? I’m taking pictures of birds, what are you doing?
He made– like he laughed about it at the end and he made it funny. But it’s such a frustration. And he had to respond to some people commenting they were just checking in on you. And like further explain his frustration because he’s like no, because they don’t check in on other people. People walk into places with weapons and they don’t check in on them, why are they checking in on me when I’m in the National Park with my camera pointed towards the greenery? That does not make any sense. I’m next to my car, I have my camera, I don’t understand what they’re checking in on.
And what I would like to see change is I understand that some people might be asking that question from a place that they did genuinely have never had that experience. Or they’ve never talked to a Black person, so they don’t know that this is something that we experience. But that’s why we have these conversations.
And I would like for more people to be open to learning about this because I’ve seen that some people are still kind of resistant. They’re like, no, I don’t know why we got to bring race into birding. We didn’t bring race into birding. Especially like being in America. We did not make anything in America about race, this is how America was founded. That’s just the way that it is and we’re trying to change that.
We’re trying to make spaces for people who look like us to feel safe doing the activities that they want to do. Because when they try to do it with the larger group of people who are white, it doesn’t end up being a safe or a great experience for them. Because of things that this country was founded on.
And being able to talk about that and how people recognize that. And also, when we get these weird comments, because even outside of Black Birders Week, I get a lot of weird racist comments. When we get those sometimes you do just have to delete them. But respond to them. I shouldn’t have to be the one to respond to those types of comments all the time.
I shouldn’t have to like wake up and be like, oh, OK, cool, I got 5 more racist comments, what am I going to say about them? That pushback should also be coming from people who are part of the same community that these people are coming from. Let them know that I don’t think that this is OK for our community to be like this.
[Deja Perkins]: Wow, yeah, I couldn’t have said that better myself. And it’s really not just annoying, it’s frustrating. It’s even a little sad the fact that we have to continuously prove ourselves in this space. And we continuously have to explain why we’re here and we have to continuously explain that we belong here, that we’re people like just doing the same things that everybody else is doing. And not only in person, but like you said, online and just constantly having to defend our right to be. And that is just so annoying and dehumanizing.
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah.
[Deja Perkins]: Because just like everybody else, we have a right to be in that space. We have a right to be safe, we have a right to enjoy that space, and we have a right to have joy in that space. And it’s really sad that a lot of times these comments and these interruptions are coming from just regular people. And it’s like why are you doing this? You wouldn’t be bothering anybody else, it’s just us. So it’s really annoying and I’m very glad that both of you all have shared those experiences.
And I guess kind of following along with that thread of thinking, we’ll move into the audience Q&A. Someone asked, what would you suggest nature centers and public lands visitor centers do in order to attract more diverse audiences to birding programs and generally foster an interest in birds or create future birders? Or, related, how have facilities like these helped to foster your interest in birds?
[Chelsea Connor]: Well, growing up my interest in birds just came naturally. I remember going to the library and every time I asked like, hey, I want to see books about this. And the librarians would help me find it. I learned about birds of paradise from my library. They had this huge book with illustrations about them.
And if it was not, I’d be like, hey, guys, where’s the book? And they’d find it for me. So that was a really great connection that helped. But that being back home with that connection, that community meant that I was seeing people like me help me find things that I needed to learn. And that is something that you don’t see a lot of in America because of the opportunities that people have because there’s not a lot of Black people in these fields. Hire people, hire more diverse staff. They will be able to reach those communities and get those people involved in showing up to national parks, in showing up to all these birding events. If they’re led by people from their community, then they’re like, oh, then I know this is for me.
It’s not to say that you can’t have an event like that as a white person try to put something like that together, but you have to know how to put it together to make sure it reaches the people that you wanted to reach. So the resources that we’ve been sharing all week, the resources that other people have been sharing, there’s lots of papers written on things like this. Make sure you do the reading and try to frame your activities and events around the work that’s been done as how to be more inclusive and diverse.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, I love that. Just kind of going along that same thread, I would love to see even– like talking about resources and guides, I would love to see books just in general inside of visitor centers that feature Black characters enjoying birds in nature. Or books by Black authors in the nature centers and visitor centers.
A lot of times I haven’t explored the national parks and things that much because it’s just there. A lot of them are out west, they’re hard to get to and the couple of times that I have been I just felt like the Indigenous cultures that were there originally, their history was erased and not even a part of the visitor centers and a part of the stories of the land.
And that made me feel really uncomfortable because I know that they’re portraying a history and a story that isn’t quite true. They start with white history. And not with the people who were originally on the land and using the land, and there aren’t any as far as I’ve seen from the national parks that I visited in Utah, and going to Yellowstone, and a couple of other places that I visited, I didn’t see any or even like the Grand Tetons. Like I didn’t see any connection or telling of the story of the originators of that space.
And that’s lacking. Like why would I want to go there and experience that space? Like people say the space is so great, but I don’t– if you don’t see the story of the people who were there, it just kind of makes you not want to go back. But Jason, do you have any thoughts about what nature centers in public lands, visitor centers can do to attract a more diverse audience?
[Jason Collins]: I think Chelsea kind of said it. I think where it probably starts is hiring people that are like a diverse– like hiring a diverse staff and then maybe going out to like schools and making events starting young so that people have exposure to what those places have to offer, and wildlife and birds, and things like that. As young people and then as they grow, they’ll know that that’s an option for them too and it’s not just something that’s only for a certain section of the population, basically.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, that was great. Someone else asked, if you all were birding alone somewhere, what are the top three ways that someone might approach you to engage in a conversation or join up for birding with you? So if you’re out alone on a trail, what are ways that someone with good intentions can and approach you to engage with you about birds on a trail?
[Chelsea Connor]: [CLEARS THROAT] Excuse me. I would say it kind of start with a greeting. It’s like, hey, how’s birding going? Do you find anything interesting? And instead of asking questions like, are you birding? Because it’s like I have binoculars and I’m standing in a park, or are you approaching me like this because the instant reaction I have is like, oh, are you accusing me of doing something else? I don’t think I want to speak to you.
So start asking like, how’s it going? Are you finding many species? Have you seen anything cool? Is a really good way to open. And then whatever the response is, you can go like, do you mind if I join you? And if the person says no, then just like leave quietly. Don’t make it a big deal. Some nice people just want to bird alone because they’re like in a certain headspace, and they just want to have that moment to themselves. And it’s not necessarily a you problem, it’s just like– because I do that a lot. I will take a walk because I just want to be alone and just see things by myself.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, I think that’s so important. The fact if someone says no or if they don’t look like they want to be approached, leave them alone.
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah.
[Deja Perkins]: It’s OK–
[Chelsea Connor]: If I have earphones in, don’t approach me. Just general rule. If you can see– you might not see it depending on how my hair is, but if you can see that I have earphones in, don’t approach me.
[Jason Collins]: Yeah, I think like Chelsea said, hey, have you see anything good today? Because then, they know even if they don’t know you’re birding, they know you’re looking for something. So maybe they’re just trying to figure it out. I try to assume that people have good intentions when they approach me. And I’ve just kind of go from there and I’ll maybe ask a question like, oh, are you birding too? And then kind of go from there.
But I’m generally pretty OK with people approaching me. And if I feel like being talked to or like joined, then I kind of I’ll drive that myself. But I feel like for some people you can approach but just read the room when you walk up to someone. It’s like, if someone’s looking through their binoculars or camera and they don’t even acknowledge your presence, they’re probably not so into it. That they don’t want to be bothered.
Like if they’re on something you hear their camera clicking, etiquette is to kind of stay back, honestly. Just so you know, somebody’s shooting because you don’t want to scare the bird off that they’re on. So just kind of read the room and maybe wait till they put their camera or binoculars down. Then just like, oh, what was that? Or did you see something cool? Or people can be curious, and just kind of give them the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise, I guess. But that’s how I deal with it.
[Chelsea Connor]: Yeah, I’m really glad that you said that because I almost forgot to mention. If I’m like not looking at my binoculars, I’m not paying attention to you. Do not sneak up on me, I get easily startled. I’m usually hyper aware of my surroundings, but if I’m focused on a bird, then it’s really easy to startle me and I will not want to speak to you. And I’m sure there’s other people that are like that. So make sure that you are approaching someone from a direction that they can see you before you like– don’t come up from behind and then tap them on the shoulder, that’s– just don’t do that, that’s not OK.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, I’m glad both of you all mention that. Because there have been times where I’ve been kind of like looking at a bird and trying to ideate, and then someone might come up to me and start talking to me. And then– because now I have to engage you and the bird is gone. Or I’m listening or I’m concentrating and trying to figure out what a bird is, and then someone starts talking to me about something completely unrelated. So definitely read the room, be respectful, and definitely just kind of make sure that you are asking questions in a way that is respectful and relatable, and not accusatory. There is always, oh, are you birding? Good for you. That’s a big no, no. Don’t do that.
But thank you all so much for joining us today. We have run out of time. If we can have your Instagrams and Twitters dropped in the chat one more time, please do follow both Jason and Chelsea across their social media platforms. Check out Jason’s very awesome bird photography, and make sure that you all keep up with the rest of the events that are going on, even though we’re at the tail end of Black Birders Week by following us on www.BlackAFInSTEM.com.
And if you are participating in Black Birders Week this week, don’t forget to register for or sign up for today’s giveaways. We have giveaways happening every day, so don’t forget to sign up for today and tomorrow. And with that, I’d just like to say thank you all so much for tuning in, and happy birding, everybody.
[Jason Collins]: Thank you.
[Chelsea Connor]: Thank you guys so much. This was great.
[Deja Perkins]: Bye.End of transcript
The third annual Black Birders Week (May 29–June 4) features a 3-part webinar series exploring the social aspects of birdwatching. Birding can be an individual activity but it’s much more enjoyable with a community of birders. In the age of COVID, and in the age of social media, how are birders connecting? Join the organizers of Black Birders Week to explore the importance of social connections in claiming your birding identity.
In part 3 of the series, panelists Jason Collins, Chelsea Connor, and Deja Perkins take a bird’s eye view of the current structure of birding culture. What exactly is birding culture? The panel discusses the culture of birding as a whole, and what they would like to see shift to make it more accepting of the various cultural connections people have with birds. Panelists share stories of how they bring their own culture into the birding experience, and how our cultural connections to birds can shape our birding journey.
Black Birders Week is organized by BlackAFinSTEM, which creates and maintains the schedules, events, and hashtags. BlackAFinSTEM is a group of young professionals in the STEM fields. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is partnering with Black Birders Week to help these important conversations reach a larger audience.