#BlackBirdersWeek seeks to open the outdoors for everyone

Campaign cofounder, Danielle Belleny, wants to showcase black nature enthusiasts

Danielle Belleny standing in a canyon

Danielle Belleny hikes in the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. She's one of the cofounders of #BlackBirdersWeek. It’s a social media campaign to promote black birders and outdoor enthusiasts.

D. Belleny

A black child grins widely while holding a falcon bigger than his head. A black ecologist stands in waders beside a beaver pond. He’s studying how to help wildlife thrive. A black evolutionary biologist holds a wriggling bat. She’s working in Belize, studying the processes that led to the diversity of life on Earth.

These photos and hundreds more bird facts, questions and experiences are flooding social media. They are part of #BlackBirdersWeek. It’s a movement that is working to promote black birders and nature fans. The social media campaign runs May 31 through June 5. There are Question & Answer sessions with black birders. There’s a Facebook livestream discussion of birding while black. It also offers prompts for sharing photos of birds and being outside in nature on Twitter and Instagram.

#BlackBirdersWeek comes during nationwide protests. People are protesting the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and many other black people at the hands of the police. To the founders of #BlackBirdersWeek, the protests increase the importance and urgency of their campaign.

The founders are a group of black individuals who work in science or related fields. They got together on Twitter, and use the account @BlackAFinSTEM. They began planning #BlackBirdersWeek after May 25. That’s the day that George Floyd was killed. On the same day, Christian Cooper was birding — looking for birds in New York City’s Central Park. Cooper — who is black — saw a white woman with a dog. The dog was not on a leash. Park rules require dogs be leashed.

When Cooper asked the woman to leash her dog, she refused. Soon, she yelled that she was calling the police. She was going “to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.” A confrontation with the police could have been very dangerous for Cooper.

Other black birders found Cooper’s experience very familiar. “What happened to him could have happened to any of us,” says Danielle Belleny. She is a wildlife biologist in San Antonio, Texas. She is also a cofounder of #BlackBirdersWeek.

Danielle Belleny
Here, Danielle Belleny is holding a scaled quail (Callipepla squamata). She says promoting diversity in birding will make the community better for everyone.D. Belleny

Belleny has also had the police called on her while working as a field biologist and while looking for birds. One of her favorite birding memories was the first time she spotted a short-eared owl (Asio flammeus). It’s “a gorgeous bird with brown streaks on its body, striking yellow eyes and these little feather tufts that look like ears on the top of their head,” she says.  She was birding while in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. But her happy memory has an unhappy portion. A stranger followed her for “looking suspicious.” 

Belleny has always loved the outdoors. “There’s a photo of me holding a huge rat snake as a 4-year-old,” she says. She also loved shows hosted by people like wildlife conservationist Jeff Corwin. But Belleny didn’t see people who looked like her represented in those shows. “I didn’t know wildlife biology was a job I could have.” 

“I really hate the stereotype that black people don’t do outdoor activities,” Belleny says. “It’s just not true.” A stereotype is a widely held view about something. But just because many people believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. Stereotypes are often myths. Many are based on ideas that have been overly simplified. And stereotypes about black people make it harder for black nature lovers. They can face bias when they try to play, relax and develop their interests in the outdoors.

Belleny continued to feel alone as a black woman in wildlife science. She went to graduate school at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. After her Master’s degree in wildlife biology, she worked in conservation. “It can be really lonely when you don’t see other people like you,” enjoying and working outside, she says.

Many kinds of science require field work. Scientists go out into natural areas to conduct research. But the people who go into those types of science tend to be white. People who identify as black or African-American received less than 1 percent of the 2018 PhD’s in ecology, evolutionary biology and wildlife biology. That’s according to data from the U.S. National Science Foundation. Belleny loved her work. But “I was really upset about my position and considered changing careers to one I could see more black people in,” she says. 

Sharing joy in the outdoors

Belleny’s doubts disappeared when she joined an online community of black birders and naturalists. It’s the group that would become @BlackAFinSTEM.

“It’s just a place for us to hang out and talk to each other,” she says. Feeling part of a community made a huge difference. And it’s a difference they now seek to share with a bigger online community.

#BlackBirdersWeek aims to show “that black people are outdoors. We do this. We love it. And we take up space,” Belleny says. “I hope young people interested in STEM will see it and realize that they belong here, too.”

Finding her community helped Belleny to continue working as a wildlife biologist. She focuses on biodiversity — making sure there’s a wide variety of species in a natural area. Recently she’s developed plans to help species in Massachusetts that conservationists are worried about. These include the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) and a bird known as the piping plover (Charadrius melodus). 

“Ecological communities are more resilient when there’s more biodiversity,” Belleny says. Diversity strengthens birding, she explains — and the broader natural science community, too. That’s what #BlackBirdersWeek aims to show. Promoting diversity in birding, she says, “will create a stronger and better community for everyone.”

Black birders in the campaign are using their passion and scientific knowledge to stand together against racism. The response has been overwhelming. Hundreds of black birders, scientists and nature lovers are sharing pictures and stories of being outside and doing what they love. “I’ve shed a couple really happy tears. It’s just so nice to see so many beautiful black faces,” Belleny says. “We deserve to be in this space and we deserve to be safe.”

Jonathan Lambert is the staff writer for biological sciences at Science News, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

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