Environment

New York City birders reckon with a colonial past and push for a diverse future

A pandemic-inspired boom has bird lovers looking for ways to welcome new enthusiasts

November 12, 2021
mockingbird in flight
A mockingbird in flight. The enormous size of the Audubon’s The Birds of America Double Elephant Folio requires two people to turn the page. [Credit: TexasEagle | CC BY-NC 2.0]

Three mockingbirds descend upon a frightful scene in John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. A rattlesnake constricts the birds’ nest and bares its fangs as the gray and white birds surround the snake and extend their wings. The conflict is frozen in time on a page of this massive tome, first published in 1827 and housed at the New York Public Library. Meredith Mann, librarian in the manuscripts and archives division, describes these “jaunty” and “full-of-attitude” birds as the “quintessential bird of New York.”

Audubon, who founded the namesake society, is a well-known figure in birding. But bird fans and historians are reexamining Audubon’s role as slaveholder and anti-abolitionist who was accused of academic fraud, details that are often not acknowledged in the history of his contributions to ornithology. The ornithology community has roots in pre-Civil War North America, and birding was a hobby reserved for white male elites. Yet today’s birders are a much more diverse group of people with a spectrum of ages, races, ethnicities and economic status to match the demographics of New York City. Now the city’s birders are taking a look back at what Audubon’s legacy means and how the community can become more inclusive, a benefit for both birdwatchers and conservationists.

The pandemic saw a rise in new birders, as many people stuck at home took to the outdoors with a pair of binoculars — or just their eyes — and looked up at the city’s abundant bird life. “This is birding’s moment,” said Christian Cooper, a board member of the New York City Audubon and longtime Central Park birder.

In 2020, Cooper, who is Black, was harassed by Amy Cooper, who is white, in an incident that was captured on a viral video. He moderated a recent New York Public Library virtual event about birding in New York City and how the community is striving to be more inclusive. 

New York City’s concrete jungle is a surprisingly bountiful playground for birds and birders. The limited number of green spaces concentrates birds into small parks and rooftops across the city, which makes it easier to see multiple species from a single park bench. What’s more, Manhattan and surrounding boroughs are located in a migratory corridor for many kinds of birds. The fall and spring seasons are especially fruitful for birding in the city, as species from up and down the East Coast make pit stops in parks and parking lots. 

Akilah Lewis was in Bryant Park recently and spotted a common yellow throat bouncing around her feet, a nice surprise. The secretary of the Feminist Bird Club, Lewis participated in the library event. She believes that birders today must combine their “passion for social justice with passion for birds” by welcoming enthusiasts of all backgrounds and experience levels. 

Birding’s traditional public faces, white men like Audubon, may make some aspiring birders uncomfortable with joining the community, she said. To make the community more inclusive, Lewis said it’s important for birding groups in the city to be as welcoming as possible, and to reach out to kids, too. She is a member of New York City Audubon’s Young Conservation Council and focuses on creating events for children and other young adult birders.

Changing bird names is another step toward making birding more inclusive, Jordan Rutter believes. A birder and ornithologist, Rutter co-founded Bird Names for Birds, an initiative to remove bird names that commemorate people. She said bird names like “Audubon’s shearwater” and “Clark’s nutcracker” are the equivalent of “verbal statues” to colonialism and racism of white men. Those names suggest that the men who named these birds somehow possess them, ignoring the indigenous people who knew and celebrated these birds before they were “discovered” by colonists.

There are better ways to celebrate the contributions of John James Audubon without adding the possessive nature of his name to bird species, Rutter argues, adding that any renaming should involve many voices from the ornithology and birding community. 

“It’s not about cancel culture…it’s about making sure to acknowledge [the history] and be conscious about steps forward,” she said.

Changing bird names is just a start, and Rutter and Lewis said there is more work to be done to continue to open up birding to everyone. Another barrier to entry, Lewis said, may be the cost of birding gear, like binoculars. She points out that there are multiple ways to birdwatch that don’t depend on binoculars, which can cost hundreds of dollars. 

Birdability Week,” a group whose mission is to make birding accessible for people with disabilities, recommends passive birding, or staying in place to observe whatever birds come into view. Lewis said she incorporates birding moments throughout her daily activities, including listening to bird calls during her commute through the city. 

Expanding diversity and inclusion in the birding community can also help increase citizen science data, which has increased dramatically during the pandemic along with the rise of birdwatching. This data helps scientists track the effects of urbanization and light pollution on birds in the city. Each year, tens of thousands die from striking windows they can’t see, especially in glass office buildings at night. If there are dead birds on the sidewalk, people should report it at dbird.org to help scientists track the total deaths, according to Kevin Burgio, director of conservation science at NYC Audubon who also spoke at the library event. If bird deaths seem to be a recurring problem, Burgio recommends talking with the building manager about retrofitting window glass with bird-friendly decals they can see. 

As bird migrations shift due to climate change, birdwatchers will be helping researchers understand how New York’s avian visitors are impacted. And as more and more people take up birding, Christian Cooper believes misperceptions of the city as an urban wasteland are changing, too. 

“Join the hordes of us out there enjoying the birds,” he said.

About the Author

Hannah Loss

Hannah is a science journalist who enjoys writing about agriculture and the environment, but loves to be stumped (temporarily) by new topics like blackholes and immunotherapy. She previously worked in scientific conference programming, radio podcasting, and documentary film research.

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