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Birdwatching During a Pandemic

What do birds & racism have in common?

[note: this post was originally written June 17, 2020, though only published now]

I enjoy birdwatching. I’m not really what’s known as a birder one who observes birds not as a hobby but a passion, someone who can tell you the difference between the sedge wren and the marsh wren, who plans vacations around their “life list” and wears binoculars everywhere. I’m very much an amateur, though a seasoned one. I can fairly easily tell you if a bird is a fly catcher or a seed eater, a thrush or a sparrow, though figuring out which particular kind of sparrow— beyond the common ones— is a stretch for me.

I picked up birding when we lived in Kenya in the early 2000s. It’s hard not to be attracted to the birds there, because they’re so colorful and varied. I mean, have you ever seen a

paradise flycatcher? Or the casqued hornbill? Or bee-eaters? Or sunbirds? Turacos or lilac-breasted rollers? The colors, shapes, sizes, and sounds of the birds are a rainbow of diversity.

Coming back to the States, I was disappointed with the blandness of most birds. Sure, there are the vibrant male cardinals and goldfinches, the regal herons, and the stately bald eagles that I see around my parents’ place in Colorado, but for the most part, American birds— to my untrained eye— are LGB’s (Little Grey Birds, or their cousins, LBB— Little Brown Birds).

Take, for instance, my backyard. I set up feeders for hummingbirds and finches, but almost exclusively see house sparrows (“millions” of them have taken up residence under the eaves of our garage), and they— along with European starlings— dominate our neighborhood.

I’ve been intrigued to see that birdwatching has become a “thing” during this pandemic. Due to the tremendous economic disparity in our country, many people were required to continue going “out” to work. But many of the people who’ve been stuck in their houses, tired of virtual meetings, have discovered that there are birds in their backyards! Traffic noise is down, so we’re noticing birdsong more. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, their May 9 Global Big Day of Birdwatching saw a 45 percent increase in human participation from last year. And the National Audubon Society’s bird ID app has seen an increase of 500,000 visits to its website during March and April.

Birds are ubiquitous; they’re everywhere. Yet most people seldom see them, rarely pay attention to their presence. But we’re living in an apocalyptic moment, a season when much of our frantic life came to a standstill, allowing for important things to be revealed. We usually think of “apocalypse” as the final destruction or a cataclysmic catastrophe. That’s one way to understand it. But the origin of the word is one of revealing that which has been concealed.

For many of us, (and this is especially more the case if we’re white) much of our life has been quieted, stilled. We aren’t visiting our favorite places, rushing to and from offices, living our common frantic life. But we are living in a time of anxiety— death may be crouching at our door in the form of interaction with those we love and those who are strangers. We fear for the lives of our elderly and those with health conditions; death— our own and those we care about— is harder to ignore.

DO YOU SEE ME?

Both our quieting and the reality of our mortality bring about an openness to that which has always been here, that we are only just now seeing. Things are being revealed that have long been hidden to many of us.

Birds.

Systemic racism.

Some of us have always seen them, have long listened to them; most of us have not. Systemic racism is not a hobby, nor a passion, nor anything resembling the goodness of birds. But like the ubiquity of the bird world, systemic racism is persistently present. Some of us have known its reality— our black sisters and brothers have been shouting about it (and dying because of it) for centuries. But for most of us white folks, we just don’t see it, we don’t hear the cries to listen.

I want to be clear here— I am a white woman, writing about something I know (birdwatching) and something I am learning more about (systemic racism that I have perpetuated and benefited from, to the detriment of my neighbors). Birding and birdwatching have their place; they call attention to the natural world around us. But I am not likening systemic racism to these activities. Rather, I am observing that, for white people particularly, it is the slowing down of our lives and our own recognition of mortality that has brought about a revealing of both the wonderful (birds) and the despicable (systemic racism).

Birders have trained their eyes to see birds— and so they see them everywhere and can tell you what they’re seeing. Birdwatchers (amateurs like me) pay attention to the birds, are fascinated by them, but can’t always tell you what they’re seeing. But our eyes are attuned to see the birds. The apocalyptic quarantine has revealed to many others the birds we’ve long seen.

I want to hope that the quieting and the reality of our mortality has also revealed to us white folks that which others have long known to be here (there are resources at end of this post). The crying out of BIPOC communities— police brutality, disparate education funding and health care and housing and opportunity and…. Our entire nation’s systems, institutions, and way of life have been built in such a way that some (whites) inherently benefit at the expense of others (BIPOC).

Protest march in Indianapolis, June 2020

I am grateful for the protests happening right now. I want to hope that the white people that are marching, joining to support our black neighbors, have had our eyes opened, are listening and allowing ourselves to be educated about both history and current reality.[i] I want to hope that white people who are now paying attention will take advantage of this apocalyptic moment to support changes to our systems, to our nation, to ourselves.

To be completely honest, I believe it’s highly likely that, as places continue to open up across the country, as we resume our work and school routines, our new bird apps will fall into disuse, our birdfeeders aren’t refilled, our recently purchased binoculars gather dust in the back of the closet. The noise once again drowns out the bird song. We might do an occasional neck swing at the dart of a bright red cardinal, but the commonness of the house sparrow will once again become invisible to us.

Will the same be true of the ubiquity of systemic racism? Will it, too, be relegated back into white people’s closets as we lose interest in this brief new hobby of protesting, as our lives return back to “normal”?

The birds will continue to sing, whether or not we see and hear them.

Here are some resources I’d recommend for learning more about America’s history and present reality of systemic racism: The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby; The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein; and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

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