Thumbnail image: Charley Hesse/Macaulay Library
[Deja Perkins]: Hello, everyone. Hi, everybody in the Zoom room–
–and everyone [LAUGHS] on Facebook. I apologize for my puppy [LAUGHS] who wants to let it be known loud and clear that he is also present for today’s webinar.
Welcome, everyone, to Part 2 of the Birding Social Experience series. And welcome, again, to Black Birders Week 2022. So excited right now to be here in this space with you all. My name is Deja Perkins, and I will be the moderator for tonight’s conversation.
Before we get started, I want to thank this year’s sponsors and partners for supporting this year’s events, and I want to send a huge thank you to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who is supporting this panel.
This year, our theme is soaring to greater heights. And as a part of that theme, we want to help explore the importance of the social aspects of birding. People go birdwatching for many different reasons, some for the fun of exploring new places and spaces, others for building social connections, and many for relaxing and mental reprieve.
Today, we want to explore the social aspects of birding with three beginner/intermediate birders and talk about their birding beginnings. If you tuned in yesterday, you may have heard from our Experienced Birders panel and heard about their birding beginnings, and how they use birding for mental health and relaxation, as well as social connections.
A few notes about today’s panel. Please drop any questions you have for the panelists in the Q&A box. And for those in– for those watching live on Facebook, go ahead and drop your questions in the Facebook chat, and someone from the Cornell team will be relaying those questions to us. And we will answer those questions during the last 15 minutes of the program.
While this is Black Birders Week, today’s program is open and welcoming to all. We want to share the experiences of Black birders, not only the social experience, but just our experiences in general with everyone out there. And the purpose of this week is to help to highlight the experience and the expertise of Black birders.
And so with that, I will go ahead and introduce today’s speakers. First up, we have Jordan Parham. Jordan is a naturalist, amateur wildlife photographer, and birder who spends as much time as he can studying nature and wildlife. He majored in conservation and wildlife management at Delaware Valley University, and now works as a park naturalist where he gives many insightful nature hikes, birding walks, and observes local wildlife.
His career goals include earning his master’s, becoming a biologist, and director of ecology and education. We love to hear it. Jordan, please come on camera. Thank you.
Next up, we have Jameelah Wright. Jameelah is a teacher, a wife, a mom from New Jersey. In addition to teaching pre-K, Jameelah has also led a Girl Scout troop and Cub Scout den. She happily shares her hobby of birding with her young students. And Jameelah has also been a National Geographic-certified educator since 2018. Welcome, Jameelah. We are so happy to have you on today’s panel.
And last but certainly not least is Ade Ben-Salahuddin, a lifelong nature enthusiast. Ade started at Yale University as an ecology and evolutionary biology major, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s in biology secondary education with 7 through 12 teaching certification at Southern Connecticut State University. His interests include evolution, paleontology, and science communication.
He has worked at the Yale Peabody Museum– huge flex– as both a collections assistant and tour guide, and currently runs the YouTube channel Adasaur, focusing on prehistoric life and highlighting the diversity of ancient past and the people who research it. Welcome, Ade.
All right. I am so excited to have each of you here to really discuss what your birding experiences have been like thus far on your birding journey. So of course, to get started we have to know, one, how long have you been birding? And two, I guess what were your birding beginnings? Did you have a spark bird, or what was it that got you hooked into birds? And for this, I guess we will start with Jordan.
[Jordan Parham]: Sure. So I guess it’s really a three-part kind of story. So I’ve been birding for probably about three years. Initially, I wasn’t really into birds. I was into amphibians and reptiles. So whenever I went out in nature, I was looking for frogs and snakes and lizards, and stuff like that.
However, in college, I had a friend who had an Ornithology class while I was taking Herpetology, and she needed help finding birds and photographing them for her class. And luckily, I had a camera with me.
So inevitably, we went one day in the late fall to a local park, and there was a bird sitting up in a cedar tree. Didn’t think anything of it. Took a picture of it.
But when I zoomed in on the picture, it was this beautiful, tannish-gray bird, almost silky looking, with little red dots on the end of its wings and a little yellow tip of a tail. It was a cedar waxwing. And it was a bird that I had seen in books, and I never thought I’d actually see in real life, and there were about 20 of them in the tree. And so that hooked me.
The following year, I was able to get into a Tropical Ecology class where we would study tropical ecology, and then take a trip to Costa Rica for about a week. And again, my goal was to find a bunch of reptiles, but I ended up looking for a bunch of birds. [LAUGHS]
And when we got back, it was March 2020, so that was the beginning of COVID. So that lockdown really forced me to get out of my house and go to my local parks, and drive around and find a bunch of places to bird. And what do you know? There were hundreds of species around my house I’d just never seen before. So that’s really how it started.
[Deja Perkins]: That’s awesome. I love that your birding beginnings are a little bit similar to my own in that I also was introduced to birds through school. And it’s also quite funny, because I know there are quite a few people in the Black birding community who started off with reptiles and herps, and then made their way over to the birding world. So I’m super happy to hear that, so thank you for sharing. Next, Jameelah, would you like to share your birding beginnings?
[Jameelah Wright]: Yes, yes. OK. So I would like to say my birding beginnings started back in 2010. I was a grad student. So I’m a teacher. I am completely different from most of you guys who have a science background. That’s not my background at all. I’m a teacher, and I was actually going to school to become a certified reading specialist.
And the way the semester worked out is that there wasn’t a class available for me to take in my major. So I was like, you know what? Science is an area that I would like to get stronger in as an educator.
So I took in early childhood science class. And the professor for this class was really into birds. Like, really into birds. And I just didn’t understand, because we were in an urban environment, and I’m like, what birds other than pigeons, really?
And although I was a lover of birds– at the time, I actually had pet birds. But you know, I just didn’t understand other kind of birds. And one thing she did with us is that she would take us to a local park, and we would go out looking for birds.
But I wouldn’t even say that was the thing that sparked me. I would say she planted a seed, and it just kind of blossomed many years later. I want to say it was probably around 2016. And I was at the park with my son. He was five. So now he’s free to run around independently, and I’m sitting on the bench. And I’m antisocial. I don’t want to talk to anybody, so I bring my binoculars so I could just look while he’s playing.
And I see a bird. It’s a blackbird. And I’m like, oh, that’s such a cute bird. And so I’m looking at him in my binoculars, and I see that his wing is red. And I’m like, oh my god. Did he get hurt? Did someone– did a cat attack him? Like, why is this bird’s wing bleeding?
And so I tried to maybe make moves like I’m going to start walking in that direction. But then I see another blackbird also with red on his wing. I’m like, OK, that bird’s not hurt. So it made me pull out my phone and started Googling. Hmm, blackbird with red on his wing. What bird is that?
And lo and behold, it was a red-winged blackbird. And this is my favorite bird, because this was the bird that made me say, hey, I like this. And you know, I want to do more of it. So yes, that’s my story.
[Deja Perkins]: I love that. Yeah, red-winged blackbirds are such cool birds. And you are not alone on the whole antisocial bit. I think a lot of us who are in the conservation field kind of are like, oh, yeah, animals over people. [LAUGHS] And that’s kind of how we all get started. And then we’re like, oh, yeah, I guess it’s kind of cool sometimes to be a little social.
So thank you so much for sharing. I love that you had this concern for the blackbird. And I love that the first bird that you really– that sparked you was a blackbird, because a lot of times the blackbirds don’t really get a lot of love, so I love it. Ade, would you like to share your birding beginnings? I have a feeling they’re a little bit different.
[Abe Ben-Salahuddin]: Perhaps just a touch. Just a touch. So the condensed way to tell the story properly would be to start with the understanding that since I was a little, little kid, I knew because of documentaries that dinosaurs and birds are related. But it didn’t sink into me, into my head that birds are dinosaurs until I was about 10.
So I used to love drawing and such, and there was this big book in my dad’s school’s library that I would always trace in. It had– it was just a massive book with illustrations of every prehistoric animal possible. And then when I was about the same age, at my mom’s school she had a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, the first edition.
And so seeing that, it just sort of translated over. Like, oh, look at all these that are just in this continent alone. And then there was a South African version of that that we ended up getting as well. We took a trip there.
And so it was a brief moment of where I was really, really into birds, but I wasn’t actually going out and looking for them. So I sort of forgot about it all. High school happened, college started.
And then eventually, the pandemic came. And at that point, you had to just walk around and do a little bit of errands as much as you could. And I just sort of started noticing the things around you, just because of how quiet it all was.
And then I started working– because the museum had closed that I was working in at the time, so I had to work other jobs. And at one point, doing overnight shifts. I got off the bus at one point, went down to a local pond, and just sort of– just sat there for a little while, just listening to how quiet it was at, like, 7 o’clock in the morning. And it was just really, really nice.
And at that point, I would just go back and return every once in a while. And the thing is, I’d never actually been to this area before. I knew it existed because it’s not very far from my house at all, but I’d never actually been there before.
And it still took another year or so. So now we’re talking late last fall, this winter that I actually started going out there consistently to look for the wildlife, and specifically all the birds that I saw. And I was just sort of blown away by how diverse it was in that one little block of space right outside of the city. So yeah, that’s sort of my bird origin story, if you will. [LAUGHS]
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah that’s really cool. A lot of people think that there aren’t a lot of birds in the city, but there are so many. And once the blinders come off and you start noticing one, then you start noticing the rest. So that’s pretty awesome.
I love how all of you all’s origin stories are a little bit different. Ade, you definitely used books and field guides, and that’s definitely how a lot of people learn about birds in the beginning, especially the colorful with all the colorful pictures. It’s just nice to look. And there’s a huge aspect of studying, because it is something you have to learn. It’s another thing you have to learn. So I really love that that was kind of your beginning.
And then Jordan, through photography and academia. Jameelah through just being able to kind of– being introduced through another person and then kind of being like, oh, this is kind of cool. So I love that you all’s origin stories are all a little bit different.
And so I have to ask, I guess along your journey, what have been some of the tools that you all have used to kind of help you along the way? And anybody can answer this if you have something. Just kind of at the top of your head.
[Jameelah Wright]: I would like to say that field guides are very, very helpful. Particularly because I work with young children, I like to start off with the ones for kids first, because it makes it easier for me to understand, especially with someone who doesn’t have a science background. But field guides have been helpful. Also, the app, the birding app that just kind of came out. That’s been very helpful.
And also, Reddit. There’s a subreddit called What is this bird? And people just post pictures of birds. Like, oh, what’s this bird? What’s this bird? And to me, that’s a great way to learn birds.
And now when I scroll through it, if I see a bird, I try to figure out what it is first, and then I check the answer. Like, oh, I got it right. So those have been the tools I’ve been using in addition to binoculars and stuff like that. But the field guides, the app, and also having that community in Reddit where people are just kind of throwing answers out there and sharing pictures of birds have been very helpful for me.
[Deja Perkins]: I’m really glad that you mentioned Reddit, because that is– while I haven’t used Reddit, there is a Facebook group called What’s this bird as well, or What’s that bird? Very similar concept. People will post pictures. Ask, oh, what is this bird? And then people answer.
But also, adding that group– joining that group is another way that I also learned. And it’s like a big game, because you’re quizzing yourself, like you said, and so you can kind of make it fun in that way. And I love that. So I love that you use Reddit. Jordan, I saw you unmuted yourself earlier. Did you have something to add?
[Jordan Parham]: Yeah, so definitely field guides and more experienced people. So usually, when I started birding, I was– again, I was antisocial. I didn’t really want to talk to anybody. I went out and needed to be by myself.
But then as I was walking around with my camera and my binoculars, people would just come up and ask me what I’m doing. Like, hey, what are you looking for? And then they had their binoculars too. And I’d just say, I’m looking for birds. And we’d strike up a conversation, and then they end up knowing 10 times more about the local wildlife than I do. Then we end up talking for an hour.
And so that’s the pattern now. Every time I go out birding, I find someone who knows a little bit more than I do, and then we just talk. Or I find someone who maybe doesn’t know as much and we start talking.
Social media definitely is a tool. Definitely Instagram. I’ve met tons of brilliant photographers and naturalists and scientists who were able– who just wanted to spare the time, five or 10 minutes at a time, to show me some more information.
I had one naturalist in particular who told me that we look at a picture of a bird in a book, and there’s the range map. Range maps are sometimes just not true.
So for example, I live in New Jersey. You look at a picture of a swallow-tailed kite. They live in Florida. Well, they breed in Florida, South Carolina, Texas, stuff like that.
But every year, we get a handful of swallow-tailed kites up in New Jersey. So the rules don’t really apply to nature, which is also what I really like. So books, people, social media, all excellent tools.
[Deja Perkins]: I love that the social experience for you has been a positive one out on the trail, and that people have been so open to helping you and sharing, because I know that’s one of the aspects that a lot of birders rave about, is that people on the trail are so friendly, and that everybody’s kind of willing– if you’re willing to kind of branch out a little bit and be like, hey, when you see another person with binoculars, you can find locations where birds are. And they’ll tell you, yeah, I saw XYZ up on the right. Like, towards the right side of the trail. You should go see it if you’ve never seen it before.
So definitely social connections, one of the– a huge way to learn, and just being mentored by other people. I know personally for me, mentorship was so important in the beginning of my journey, not just for getting outside, but– well, not just for learning the birds, but actually getting me outside. Because you know, the birds, they up early, and so sometimes it’s a little hard trying to get out of bed to go see these birds when you’re just getting started.
And so for me, having that person that was like, let’s go birding [LAUGHS] was the thing that really got me out and really helped me become the more experienced birder than I am today. How about you, Ade? Do you have any tools in particular in addition to field guides that you use?
[Abe Ben-Salahuddin]: Not really. Actually, funnily enough, I have not really used a field guide per se yet, partly because I don’t really own one anymore. Frankly, the most motivating tool has just been knowing that there’s other people in cities, other Black folks in cities who are doing this sort of thing.
When I go out to the same park area, I don’t necessarily see anybody birdwatching per se, but I’ve recently started seeing people going fishing and just sort of being outside and chilling. So I guess that visually seeing it– because you can intellectually know there’s other people out here doing this. Of course, there is. Black Birders has been going on for two years now. But seeing it with your own eyes, like, oh, there’s actually people out here doing it, it makes you feel a lot less of a standout in that regard.
And then just having people on social media, certain folks– you all know who you are– [LAUGHS] who you can just ping and just send a picture to, like a bad cell phone photo to and be like, hey, I saw this. Yeah, that’s pretty cool. And every once in a while, you’ll get a little tip and trick. But so far, it’s honestly been a lot of self-learning for me.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, that is so true. Other people can definitely motivate us. Not even just motivate us, but having the presence of another Black person out in the space definitely, at least for me, and it sounds like for you too, just helps you feel more comfortable, helps you feel more at ease. And so just kind of solidifies that sense of belonging, for sure.
And so I’m just kind of wondering, are you all primarily solo birders? Have you tried birding in groups? What has your social experience been like so far? Do you feel like you’ve found your birding community? Like, your community of people to– have you found your bird people? And what was that like?
[Jameelah Wright]: If I could go first, I would definitely say I am a solo birder. I get– well, OK, on the one hand, I’m going to say yes. I’m a solo birder. But on the other hand, because I have young students who I talk to about birds all the time, and sometimes they’ll report back to me, then maybe low-key, they’re my tribe.
But I would say that I am a solo birder, because the times that I was out at the park with my son, I didn’t see anybody out there with binoculars or anything like that. And I remember during the pandemic when the incident happened with Chris Cooper over in Central Park– And I mean first, the whole issue in general, but then the fact that he was a Black birder, I was like, what? There’s another one? It’s not just me? Like, there are more people out there?
And then when Black Birders Week started like, [GASP]. There are a lot of us out there birding. So I’m excited knowing that, that there are other people out there. And would I like to maybe have a partner to bird with? Probably, yeah, but I’m OK being by myself as well, knowing that there are spaces online that if I did have a question, that I could pose it to someone and get the help that I needed.
[Deja Perkins]: And it’s 100% OK to be a solo birder. I honestly go birding solo most of the time, aside from those times where I get to really experience birding with my best friend. Sharon, shout-out to you, girl. [LAUGHS]
But it’s definitely– I will say before being connected with Black AF in Stem and before Black Birders Week, I definitely had no idea that there were other people– other Black people that like birding. Or at least for me and doing it as a part of getting into birding through my research and my master’s project, it was definitely– I was like, oh, it’s just me.
Especially if you don’t have anybody in your area– because there are a lot of us, but we’re spread out. We’re so spread out everywhere. So it’s really hard to kind make those connections. And so like you said, the online community is another place to find that. Jordan?
[Jordan Parham]: So I would definitely say yes. 95% of the time, I’m out birding by myself. Aside from when I’m leading bird walks and nature walks, I’m usually out there by myself.
And it’s not necessarily because I don’t like being around people. It’s just when you spend your whole day or your whole week around people, you kind of just want a few hours to yourself. So I’ll get up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, drive an hour and a half to the shore or South Jersey, and I’ll bird in the various places that are really nice for birding.
But sometimes– very few times, however, I’ll go birding with a group of people that are awesome. They’re actually the people that have helped me get out birding more often, especially in New Jersey, because I only thought that, what? There’s the shore and there’s the forest behind my house, right?
But then they show you that, no. There’s pine forests in the south. There’s big deciduous forests in the north. There’s a wetlands in the Great Swamp, the National Wildlife Refuge. I mean, you just have to get out there and know when to go. [LAUGHS] So definitely more solo than anything.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, solo birding I feel like is a common experience amongst Black birders. That is definitely the story that we heard from our Experienced Birders panel yesterday as well.
But like you said, birding with other people can definitely expose you to more places to go, whether that’s in person or even just finding that community on Twitter, and they’re like, oh, check out this place. There are all these other places that you can go birding.
Ade, how have you– have you been able to find your tribe? Have you been able to find– I’m sorry, your flock [LAUGHS] within birding? And how has your– has the social experience been like for you?
[Abe Ben-Salahuddin]: Well, as Jameelah said, a lot of the flock for me is very much online right now. I’m definitely within the Black AF in Stem group. I have– well, actually, let me backtrack. Yeah. Most of my solo– most of my experience has been solo. There have been one or two experiences I can think– I can really think of that I’ve gone with someone else.
Funnily enough, first time was actually– [LAUGHS] was actually a date, which was interesting, because it was more of a my activity sort of thing. I sort of ended up being the guide. But that was also pretty fun in its own way, seeing someone else sort of get that same sort of spark or inspiration when they saw– because we happened to see a red-tailed hawk right above us, just sitting in a tree.
And we’re like, oh. We’d seen things after that. Because we’d seen a couple of other things at first, and she was like, oh, cool, cool, cool. But then when the hawk just sat right in front of us and just let us get really, really close to it, you could see the light go off. Like, oh, now we’re looking– now we’re looking for things. So yeah, definitely want to have more of those sort of experiences with people.
I got to do it one other time. Actually, a couple days ago in DC, I was fortunate enough to be invited down to the Smithsonian’s Black Birders Week events. And we did two bird walks in the morning. And people just came out from the area. And I mean, I’ve never been to DC before for that extended period of time.
But seeing all the people come out who are enthused about it, it was like, oh, wow. Yeah. [LAUGHS] This is definitely a thing people really do, doing together. And you get that energy. Like, just seeing regular birds, people seeing like– I mean, not regular birds. People seeing house sparrows and house finches, American robins, and all those sorts of things. That’s mostly what it was. Yeah, it just– very reinvigorating, I’ll say.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, for sure. It is definitely reaffirming when you see a big group of other Black folks out there, doing the same thing you like to do. And it’s just like, wow, we really are out here. Like, it’s awesome.
We have a few good questions in the chat that I am wanting to start incorporating. And so this question is from Jacqueline. And it says that the birding community is perceived as a white and aging space. And I want to know, have you all perceived that? And has that been a barrier for you? And if it has been a barrier for you, how have you overcome it?
[Jordan Parham]: So in my experience, I do see that to be the case as well. But in my experience as well, I find that talking to those people is probably the most insightful thing you can do, because sure, maybe you get some stares because you’re the only one or one of a few.
But once they get past what you look like and you start to have a conversation, there’s a lot to be gained from those talks. Because again, when I go out in nature, I don’t want to talk to anybody. I just want to listen to the birds, listen to the snakes rustling in the grass.
But sometimes there’s people who just want to talk, and the only thing to do in that case is just to listen. And sometimes you learn some amazing things about their lives, about what they did before they started birding, and what got them into birding in the first place. So I think while that is true, the conversations definitely help close those gaps.
[Jameelah Wright]: I do want to agree with the perception, but I don’t feel like it’s been a barrier for me, only because I just don’t know any other birders in general, outside of that one professor I had. So even when I’m out in a space, I am literally the only one. There’s nobody else out there with binoculars. But it could just be the area that I’m in.
Also, I tend to focus more on maybe backyard work. So I’m looking at the stuff on our playground when we take our– when we take the kids on a nature walk around the block.
So I don’t perceive it to be a barrier for me, only because I just don’t know any other people. And even in the online spaces like on Reddit, you don’t really know who anyone is because there’s avatars.
But I would agree with Jordan’s assessment that even if there are a lot of white older people, I would want to tap into the knowledge that they have. I would see them as a resource, not as something that’s going to stop me from doing what I want to do.
[Deja Perkins]: Ade, how about you? How do you feel about the perceptions of the birding community?
[Abe Ben-Salahuddin]: Considering that’s something that I haven’t really thought of until I knew of Black Birders Week in general, it just seems– it’s always been one of those things that you just sort of assume it’s predominantly white and elderly, just because that seems to be sort of the nature– at least the historical nature of who’s out there and who you get to see represented.
But in terms of my own personal experience, I can’t really say it’s been a barrier. I don’t personally know a lot of other birders in person. I’ve seen a lot of what come across as sort of old guard folks on social media occasionally giving some pushback to attempts to diversify or at least highlight diversity.
But there’s been just as many, including Sibley himself, I think– yeah. Yeah, Sibley himself who’s been very vocal about, we want this to be as welcoming as possible. So definitely taking that in stride, for whatever that’s worth.
[Deja Perkins]: Oh, I love to hear that it has not been a barrier for all of you. But what I am hearing is that many of you all go birding in isolation, or you haven’t really found a community of people that you really enjoy birding with.
And I’ll just quickly share my own experience, since I have so many local Audubon groups around me. I think the aging part, the aging birding community is one of the things that prevents me from going on group walks a lot of times, because there’s the cultural difference. There’s the age gap and just kind of the difference in experiences.
And personally, sometimes I just want to go birding with friends or people who are around my age. And it’s a lot of fun to be able to relate to people when you go birding.
So other people who are in– for me, that means other people who are in master’s programs or professional programs or have just– who are just getting into their careers. For me that’s a lot of fun, because we have other things that we can talk about and relate with, and there are jokes that we share. And so there’s a lot of that.
The one time I went birding with a group of people here in Raleigh– they all go to Duke. But it was so– I had so much fun. And it wasn’t like there were a bunch of Black birders. It was just it was the most diverse group I had ever gone birding with, and we were all young.
And it was just refreshing, and the jokes that we shared. I mean, you all really have to have that experience of going birding with people who you can relate to, because it really is a game changer.
And I feel like it’s something that you don’t really know that you’re missing until you experience it. And it’s like, man. That was really cool. I would do that again.
Versus some other spaces that I enter into, if I’m the youngest person in the space, sometimes I feel like I’m treated as if I– like, oh, you don’t really know a lot of birds, or I don’t trust your ID capability. You know, how long have you really been birding? Because I am pretty young.
But that’s just kind of my personal feelings towards it. But also, I think it’s different depending on if you are more so a solo birder. Then it isn’t a barrier for you, because you don’t use birding for the social aspects anyway.
But if you are a social– more of a social birder, I’m not saying that you don’t go birding with those groups, because I have gone birding with those groups, because it is great to be around people who are more experienced and kind of gain some of their knowledge. But it’s not something that I would want to do every single time I go birding. And for that, I would much rather just be by myself then in that situation.
So I have one more question before I roll into the rest of these audience Q&A questions. I’m curious– well, one, I’m curious, when did you all feel comfortable enough to call your– like, identifying as a birder? Was it immediately, or did it take some time for you to accept, like, oh, yeah, I’m a birder?
Because I know for me, I had been observing birds and trying to figure out what their ID was and appreciating the beauty of birds way before I was like, OK, yeah, I’m a birder. So how was that experience like for you all?
[Jameelah Wright]: So even though the red-winged blackbird was my spark bird, I don’t– and maybe I did feel like a birder at that moment when I ID’d it. But I don’t know if I was going around saying, oh, yeah. I’m a birder. I’m a birder. Maybe not until the 10th bird that I ID’d. I’m like, OK.
And I would set out purposefully, especially during the summer when I wasn’t working, once a week go to this spot and look for birds. And then the next day I would go to another spot. I’m like, mm, all right. I’m a birder now.
So I think I do it in levels. So I’m still calling myself a beginner, because right now I feel like between 25 and 30 birds I’ve ID’d. And I feel like once I get to 50, then I’ll say that I’m intermediate. And then when I get to 100, I will say that I’m an expert. So yeah. So I would probably say around the 10th ID is when I said, you know what? This is who I am. This is what I am. I am a birder.
[Deja Perkins]: I love that. Ade?
[Abe Ben-Salahuddin]: Definitely a label I’m still settling into. Like, I still say, I go birdwatching. [LAUGHS] And I’ve learned within the last 12 months, maybe a little bit before that, that birding is an actual term, and the preferred term. So still settling into just the vernacular of it.
I think once– I don’t know where I’d place myself at this point, because I’m at the point where I’ve life-long sort of recognized most of the birds around here. I can tell what they are visually.
I think this next step before I would be willing to call myself that would be if I can identify them by sound, which is what I’m currently working on. So only in the last maybe month or so I’ve started actually listening for them. So teaching myself what an American robin actually sounds like, or a cardinal, et cetera, et cetera.
So I can recognize, I want to say, maybe four or five species. I can definitely hear and be like, OK, 95% sure that’s what that is. If I would put it in maybe my own personal goal, I think when I get to 15 or 20, then I’d give myself the label. [LAUGHS]
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, I was going to say, when you say you can ID birds by ear, that’s a really high mark to put yourself at before you identify as a birder. But everybody’s birding journey is their own. And so if that’s what you feel like is going to take for you to accept the fact that you are a birder, that’s fine. [LAUGHS]
Jordan, how about you? Have you– like, how long did it take for you to identify, to really accept the identity as a birder, if you claim that identity?
[Jordan Parham]: Well, it didn’t take long, personally. I’m a very scientifically minded person, and I focus in on things really deeply and really quickly. So once I got into birding, I started to read everything there was to read about birds. Literally everything. Life history, evolution, everything.
I have on this desk probably about 10 journals of me talking about birding to myself. So journals and journals and journals, and more journals, all full of my observations of nature. And then eventually, I just bought breeding bird surveys of historical data of birds breeding in my state.
So I would say once I started drawing pictures of robins on my front lawn, I started to think about, I wonder where they go, who are they related to? I think at that point I was like, OK, maybe I’m a birder. [LAUGHS]
[Deja Perkins]: OK, so you’re like me. You’re definitely scientifically minded. And you know, you’re old-school, kind of traditional with the nature– like, the journalings and writing down your observations, and just 100% bird nerd, wanting to know historically, who was here? I love it. And I really love the variety that we have amongst our panelists.
So with that, I think we’re going to keep moving into the audience Q&A, because our audience has so many questions. Melissa said to everybody, face it, you’re all bird nerds. [LAUGHS] So accept it.
Let’s see. So Jordan, for you specifically, someone asked if you do bird walks in Camden or Burlington County? They are also– they’re a 70-year-old life birder in Camden County, New Jersey, and they’ve been birding with local groups, but they’ve been the only Black person. And so they’ve had some good experiences, some not-so-good experience. And they want to know, can they go birding with you, and how do they do it?
[Jordan Parham]: So yeah, I wouldn’t mind if he came birding with me. That’d be awesome. How do you do it? Well, sometimes I do birdwatch with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. So if you go on their website, occasionally I’ll be doing a birdwatch with them.
I actually just did one two– almost three days ago. We went to a park in Trenton. And I haven’t been in Trenton in a very long time. So when I got there, I was pleasantly surprised by this park. And lots of people came out, and we saw eastern phoebe, Baltimore oriole, lots of cool stuff.
So if birding with me is something that you would like to do, which would be super, super awesome, check out the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website, and they’ll be posting the various activities that they do, including some bird walks that I do.
[Deja Perkins]: Awesome. I love that we’re making connections right here on the call. So please do check out the links that have been posted in the chat and follow Jordan on Instagram, because he has a really cool photography page.
All right. So I think this question is probably going to be for you, Jameelah. Someone says, I’m not an expert birder, but I’m into birding. And their elementary school is trying to think of what morning clubs they could have. What do you think about birding clubs? Is it something that you’ve seen existing in schools? Is it something that is a good idea to incorporate in schools? How do you feel about it?
[Jameelah Wright]: I think it’s an amazing idea, because it’s a great way to introduce the children to it. So I teach pre-K. My children are very young, and I do introduce them to birds. But I’ve also been troop leader for a Girl Scout troop as well as a Cub Scout den, and I take the time to introduce them to the birds, the ones that I have ID’d.
What I try to do is every time I ID a bird, I try to find the plush of it so I can tell the kids about the bird, and then also– wait– [CHIRPING] it makes the sounds too. Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So I think starting a birding club at school would be amazing. Also, I forget which website I was on, but they have these wonderful flashcards for birds, because they don’t always have the plushies for all the birds that I’ve ID’d, which makes me very sad. But the flashcards, you can probably have most of the birds that you can find in your area.
So I think it would be a great place to start introducing kids, especially kids in urban areas like my students, because like me, I grew up in this town my whole life, and I never– outside of a pigeon, I never saw until I started looking, and then I could see all the different kinds of birds. So once you start introducing them, the kids will start to see them too, so I definitely recommend it. Go for it.
And don’t worry about you not being an expert. You will learn along the way. You will learn with the children. That’s why I say even with the field guides, get one for the kids, and then you can learn along with them. Get the plushies. Get the flashcards. Join the Reddit, you know? And take it and learn with the kids. I think it’s a great idea.
[Deja Perkins]: Yes. I love that, because I think that birding is a way that you can do that intergenerational learning and that knowledge passing from kid to adult, from adult to kid. There’s a lot of knowledge shared and a lot of– it builds a bond too. So either between parent and child, teacher and child, and children. So that’s really cool.
[Jameelah Wright]: I’m sorry, I could just jump back. So I have a son, and he’s 10. And he knows that Mommy’s into birds. So if he’s out without me or it’s him and my husband, they’ll come back with a picture, like, oh, Mommy, what’s this bird? What’s this bird?
Or even my coworkers, my colleagues, if they see a bird in their backyard, they’ll take a picture and say, J, we know you’re into birds. ID this bird for us. So I think it’s definitely a great bonding experience. Even if they’re not into it, they will know that you are into it, and then that could be an introduction to get them into it. But just the fact that there are other people who know what you’re passionate about, and they’ll bring it to you.
[Deja Perkins]: Thank you for sharing that. And I’m wondering if you all could share I guess a little bit about how you got into what you’re doing. We have a question in the chat that’s asking, how do you become a park naturalist? What school did you go to to learn about– how do you learn about science communication? Do y’all have any tips for the audience here today?
[Jordan Parham]: I can answer that really quick. So for me personally, I started off going to a county college for the first two years, because I’m not going to waste money going to a big college for four years. So I went to a county college for four years, and then I transferred to Delaware Valley University. That’s in Pennsylvania. And I majored in conservation and wildlife management.
Now there, the program requires you to do internships related to your field. So people will work at zoos. People will work at aquariums. People will do travel abroad programs. I did all those. So worked at a zoo, worked with tigers, went to Costa Rica, did a research project on invasive plants. So doing those things will expose you to how to properly communicate things to people, to the public that may not be familiar with scientific stuff.
As to how to become a naturalist, that’s really not necessarily a professional title. A naturalist is really anyone who likes nature and wants to understand any or all aspects of it. So whether it’s the plants or the animals or the fungus or the weather, that’s a naturalist.
How I got the job personally, graduated college. I got a position as a breeding bird survey volunteer in the Meadowlands in New Jersey. So I’ll get in a kayak in the early morning and kayak around the marshes and look for breeding birds like least bittern and gallinule.
And I had someone contact me, asking me if I wanted to work at the Watchung Reservation, which is in Mountainside. And I didn’t really know what a park naturalist was, but after talking to them and learning about what it entails, which is essentially public education, for me personally, going out and taking inventory of the wildlife in the park and teaching people about it, I was all in.
So really, again, talking to people, super important. A variety of different experiences, whether it be volunteering or doing internships or different jobs. And not necessarily specializing in what you go to college for, but maybe biology. And then you find what you are passionate about, and then going with that.
[Deja Perkins]: So we are almost at the end of our program, and I am wondering if you all would all be willing to share your favorite birding hack. Someone asked in the chat if you have a hack that you want to share.
They say that they wear bicycling gloves when birding so that the bugs don’t have as much skin to bite when they are looking for warblers. So do you all have any type of birding hack that you use, whether that’s something related to how you carry your binoculars or anything that makes it easier for you to go birding?
[Abe Ben-Salahuddin]: I can say I’ve always been a little squeamish about having bugs fly in my face, so wearing a mask, which obviously we didn’t do that till recently, but I’ve found that to be a lot more emboldening, let’s say. So now I’ll be out in a little stand of trees for a good 45 minutes and not noticing the gnats and whatnot who try to get in your nostrils and whatnot. So I would say mask up if you’re bothered by it. [LAUGHS]
[Deja Perkins]: I definitely use that hack when pollen season is around, because when it is– last year, we had the pollen apocalypse, and the mask definitely helped me to not be breathing, and it made birding outside bearable when the pollen was really bad last year. Does anybody else have a birding hack?
[Jameelah Wright]: Well, I guess if we’re talking about braving the outdoor elements, so I have a skin condition that is exacerbated by the sunlight. And on days when it’s really, really hot, I really don’t go outside, because my forearms, they just completely break out. It’s just terrible.
So one hack that I literally just discovered is I just bought some arm sleeves that bikers wear when they’re out doing their little biking thing. And it’s just literally an arm sleeve, and it makes being outside more tolerable for me, because without those arm sleeves, I wouldn’t be able to go out. I would literally be in agony. So that’s definitely one of my– it will be one of my hacks when I go out this summer.
[Deja Perkins]: Yeah, I love that. That’s a great tip. Jordan, do you have a tip for the people?
[Jordan Parham]: Sure. So I have two good ones. One, no matter where you are or what the temperature is, always wear long pants. Bugs are annoying. [LAUGHS] They’re going to be there no matter where you are. I don’t like bugs. So long pants, long socks. I wear hiking boots that go up past my ankles so I don’t twist my ankle when I’m walking.
And two, when it comes to identifying birds by sound, I do my best to take at least 10 to 15 minutes during the walk to just stand still and just listen, and then count on my fingers how many different sounds I hear. So I’m sitting there and I’m listening. No binoculars, no camera. I just close my eyes and I’m listening.
OK, I hear a cardinal. All right, eastern wood pewee. All right, there’s an oriole. I think that’s a black and white warbler. So you try your best to separate the sounds from the ambient noises of nature, and then use Merlin or some other sound ID to listen back and see if you were right about what sound it was.
[Deja Perkins]: Those are some great tips. I love Merlin. It is the app that I always use every single time I go birding, even though I consider myself an intermediate, experienced-ish birder. I definitely– there’s no shame in my birding game, even when I’m leading bird walks. We are using Merlin. We are learning how to use the tools that are going to help us go birding on our own and helping us ID just what’s around.
Because really, when Merlin– I’m sorry. When everyone [LAUGHS] at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when they came out with the ability to identify– to record and help identify the birds by ear, by sound, that changed my birding game, because before I was like, I think that’s this. But then now, whip out my phone, go ahead and put the mic up, and record. I love that it will save your sound files for you.
And like you said, it’s such a great way for you to test your skills. Like, OK, I think that’s what this is, but is that what it is? And it’s always so exciting when you get it right.
And then your other tip, even if you don’t know what the call– like, who’s calling, just being able to start identifying how many different calls you’re hearing or songs that you’re hearing, how many different ones you’re hearing, that definitely has been helpful for me when I first started kind of trying to learn birds by ear.
So we are getting close to the end of our panel here. I want to thank our audience for being so engaged and asking so many wonderful questions. I want to thank our panelists for sharing their stories and their experiences.
So I think one of the common themes for tonight was that sometimes for beginner, intermediate birders, you are mostly birding solo. You’re birding on your own. And that’s OK. Sometimes you have to find your community in other places, because there isn’t really anyone around you locally that you can connect with and you can identify with that make you feel safe in an outdoor space.
And that’s OK, because birding can be just as fun when you’re doing it on your own, because there are other reasons to go birding for meditative, mental health reasons, or just getting some peace of mind and enjoying nature, because that’s what it’s really all about.
So as we wrap up here, I want to invite everyone out there watching live, everyone who will be watching this in the future, to use today’s hashtag, #LeavingTheNest to share– I’m sorry, #LearningToTakeFlight to share your own experiences and when you were able to really identify as a birder, and if you accept that birding identity.
And remember to head to our website, www.blackafinstem.com, to enter to win one of our daily giveaways. Our giveaway portals close tonight at midnight. And I don’t remember what the giveaways for today are, but if you head over to our website, you can find out for yourself.
So I want to just go ahead and thank everyone so much for tuning in to Part 2, the Social Experiences in Birding panel. You can join us again on Friday at noon Eastern to hear a little bit about what it’s like birding in other countries. I’m super excited to speak with our two panelists on Friday and hear about what their experiences have been like birding in other countries. But for that, tonight, I will say thank you to all, and to all a good night. [LAUGHS]
There is a panel tomorrow on birding and mental health, so please do register for that. We have a panel in partnership with BirdNote, so go ahead and check that out if you are interested in the mental health benefits of birding. And I hope y’all all have a great night. Thanks so much for tuning in. Happy Black Birders Week, y’all.
[Jordan Parham]: Take care. Thank you.End of transcript
The third annual Black Birders Week (May 29–June 4, 2022) 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 2 of the series, Deja Perkins, Ade Ben-Salahuddin, Jordan Parham, and Jameelah Wright discuss the experiences of beginner and intermediate birders. The panel focuses on what can be done to make the experience of new birders more welcoming, and address what might prevent someone from claiming the “birder” identity. This panel also discusses inclusion in birding from the perspective of birders who are just getting their feet wet within the birding community.
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.