Joys, Risks of Black Birding

During the wee hours of a recent Sunday morning, a Black man and his mixed-race, Black and Latinx friend meet in front of Be’er Sheva Park in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood, among the most diverse in the city. They are wearing caps and face masks and carrying binoculars. The air holds a chill and a foreboding sky wrings out a steady drizzle.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s first emergency curfew was lifted in Seattle just a few hours earlier. This, they admit, is a bit of an act of resistance. They are resisting cultural norms, and by extension the anti-Black racism that claimed another life: that of George Floyd in Minneapolis, whose death at the hands of police touched off urgent, emotional protests like the one that took place in downtown Seattle the night before.

More directly, they are resisting the cultural norms implicating two masked, binocular-toting men of African American heritage as, at best, out of place and, at worst, up to no good — particularly in an urban setting. Just a week earlier, another Black man, Christian Cooper, ventured out with similar intentions — birdwatching — in New York City, only to have a white woman, coincidentally named Amy Cooper, weaponize her racism by threatening to call the cops on him, and then doing so. The “Central Park Karen” incident still reverberates, and there’s a clear line connecting her actions with the bias and hatred that led to Floyd’s killing.

“I’m thankful that nothing happened to Christian,” says Joey Manson, who knows and is connected to Cooper through the National Audubon Society. “I’m left wondering what the police response would have been if they’d shown up and seen these two people after this woman has called 911 and said she’s being threatened by an African American.”

Manson shudders. He is the director of the Seward Park Audubon Center in Seattle and is the only Black director of 41 such centers around the country. His center serves one of the most diverse zip codes in the country and his presence tends to attract the other rare Black birders who migrate in from other regions.

Among those are Armand Lucas, an already converted birdwatcher who found his way to Seward Park shortly after moving to Seattle from Boston about a year and a half ago. Lucas is tall and proper and an environmental scientist. He is wearing a cap embroidered with the likeness of an ivory-billed woodpecker, once an almost mythical creature, but now extinct. The ivory-billed was last spotted in Arkansas, from where Lucas’ father, David, hails.

“He grew up in a segregated town (West Helena) and went to a segregated school, and he drank from different water fountains from everyone else,” Lucas says. “I grew up with stories of that kind of very venomous racism that he had to deal with his whole life. Some of the stories that we’re hearing today, for me personally, bring back that kind of hurt and pain that he dealt with on a daily basis and in a very visceral way.”

“I connect with my father’s story by the racism that we’re seeing and hearing in the news that sometimes I’m personally experiencing. It is disheartening.”

Theirs was not intended to be an outing of protest. That much is obvious the second they connect, as they immediately begin chattering about the various bird species each has recently spotted near their homes. After months of sheltering in place, they are freed, at last, in nature’s healing grasp, even amid the whooshing cars, splashing busses and other street familiars. It was simply serendipitous that Sunday was the opening day of the first-ever #BlackBirdersWeek, a social media campaign celebrating the things that Black folks supposedly don’t do outdoors.

Lucas has an ear for bird calls, so even a short stroll up the street is paused frequently for some auditory identifications. A white-crowned sparrow atop the edge of a roof here. A Caspian tern on a wire there. Manson talks animatedly about the sighting of yellow-shafted northern flickers at the feeders behind his center.

Eventually, they are standing in front of a high school parking lot, binoculars trained above the roofline of a dormant, boarded-up Planet Fitness. They close in on their quarry, talking their way through it, when a high-pitched call pierces the air. They both whirl around, mid-sentence, and spot a killdeer, a shorebird known for its ability to feign injury in order to draw predators away from their nests and young.

That Lucas and Manson found each other is a far rarer occurrence than spotting shorebirds in a puddle-filled, urban high-school parking lot. Booming as an outdoor activity in this country, bird watching nevertheless is as white — 93 percent, according to the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey — as c-suite leadership in a typical tech company.

Dr. Drew Lanham, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson, gained national renown for his hilarious riff on the stigmatized experience of the African American birder, “9 Rules of the Black Birdwatcher,” produced as a video by BirdNote, a public radio series about birds that originates in Seattle. Lucas has lived the scenarios of Lanham’s racial bird-watching incongruities. He was just one of the gang while participating in a Washington Ornithological Society survey of American dippers, the continent’s only aquatic songbirds, near a hatchery in Mason County, northwest of Olympia. The next time he returned, solo, Lucas was stared down with suspicion.

“I guess they thought I was going to steal some fish,” he says, maybe only half joking.

As he tells this story, Lucas stands beside Manson in the narrow thoroughfare — 52nd Avenue South — between the 9000 Rainier Avenue strip mall and the Lake Washington Apartments. They are staring at a tall cell tower in the middle of a vacant lot. The tower is crowned with a largish nest, home to a pair of osprey, the banded-eye raptor with elite-level talent for catching fish. The location of the nest seems as discordant as the two Black men who brave preconceptions (and precipitation) to view it.

“One of the things I hope people take away from the concept of birding is that many folks try to talk about the different places you can fly to or drive to — these pristine areas to go birding,” Manson says. “But birds are everywhere. And if your ears are trained and if you know where to look, you’ll find that birds like the osprey, this magnificent bird of prey, are right there around the corner from you. Whether you live in urban areas or far out, the birds are going to be someplace where you can look at them, explore and try to learn from.”

Maybe three blocks south from that unlikely triangulation of Joey Manson, Armand Lucas and the nesting osprey, a suspected double homicide had taken place in a Safeway parking lot the previous Saturday.

While the rest of society may not be, nature can be absolutely unbiased in the formulation of its surprising symmetries.