The first time Corina Newsome saw a pileated woodpecker, she wept. It was winter in Northeast Ohio and thick flakes were blanketing the earth outside. She’d learned earlier that day on a local radio station that someone spotted the redheaded woodpecker in a nearby forest. It was her unicorn bird that—though common in Ohio—had evaded her many searches the last 12 months. A little snow wasn’t going to stop her.
So she asked her friend’s mom for a ride, and the pair drove nearly two hours through the blizzard to a nondescript pullout and started trekking. It was the kind of “big snow” that falls to earth as if in slow motion, she recalls today. Corina slogged through the soft piles, listening for the bird’s distinct call—“like a monkey laughing.” Finally, through hushed snowfall and held breaths, Corina spotted it: the flaming-red cap of the crow-size bird. She dropped to her knees in awe.
“It was the most magical experience,” she recalls from her Georgia apartment on a video call earlier this year. “I’ll never forget it.”
There was a time when common North American birds sounded uninteresting to Corina, who spent much of her college career studying exotic animals. The now-27-year-old grew up in Philadelphia with her nose buried in wildlife encyclopedias, studying species from different corners of the world and jotting down her favorites in a journal. After college, she landed jobs at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and Nashville Zoo, conducting animal shows and environmental education talks. Still, local birds seemed almost boring by comparison. Furthermore, in order to recognize them in the wild, you must memorize hundreds of species by sight and sound.
“Like, who does that?” she quips.
These days, Corina does.
As with most passion projects, Corina’s started small: an unassuming blue jay that caught her attention with its bright-blue feathers and imposing size. Soon, identifying a brown thrasher or a robin felt like finding treasure, Corina says.
Now birds are part of Corina’s profession. She’s been working in wildlife conservation in various capacities for the past eight years and is currently a graduate student in ornithology at Georgia Southern University and a community engagement manager at Georgia Audubon. In her blog, Hood Naturalist, she writes that birds changed her life. That if “hope” were a physical being, it would be a bird.
Today, Corina wants others to experience the same life-giving transformation. More specifically, she wants more Black people to enjoy birding, and she wants it to feel safe for them.
Until a year ago, Corina was the only Black birder she knew. She might be the only one other people know, too.
Many of the people she’s birded with are white men who sport khakis and beige vests with pockets that droop under the weight of their many gadgets. Corina acknowledges that there’s a time and place for the utilitarian uniform of the trade, but when she simply wants to check out the local birds or go on one of her regular “treasure” hunts, she opts for clothes that feel more like her: bold earrings, skinny jeans, bright shirts. Sometimes, she tucks her cropped hair under a colorful baseball cap. But for as much as dressing like this preserves her identity, it can make Corina feel out of place in a community where she is decidedly in the minority. Ninety-three percent of birders identify as white, with the average birder age 55, according to 2011 data from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Corina says she’s often felt out of place in outdoor spaces. While she hasn’t experienced overt racism on the trail, she says, she has heard microaggressions within birding groups.
In 2013, J. Drew Lanham, a writer, ecologist and birder, wrote the rules of birding as a Black person as a poke at the racism Black birders face outdoors. He writes that no Black birder should wear a hoodie and that they should prepare to be confused with the one other Black birder people know. “You’re a Black man sneaking around in the nether regions of a suburban park—at dusk, with a spotting scope,” he writes. “Guess what? You’re going to have some prolonged conversations with the authorities.”
Corina says she thinks about these “rules” when she’s birding outside and is accustomed to correcting her behavior to make white recreationists feel more comfortable. When a hiker passes her while she’s bird-watching, she reflexively raises her binoculars to her eyes to show them why she’s on the trail. “I kind of anticipate that people will be uncomfortable by me standing there,” she says, “So I make myself as least threatening as possible.”
This kind of tension was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this year when a white woman called the police on a Black man who was bird-watching in New York City’s Central Park. The man, Christian Cooper, had asked the woman, Amy Cooper (no relation), to leash her dog, per the park rules. She refused and called the police to report that he was threatening her. Christian Cooper recorded the incident, which was later posted to social media. In the video, Amy Cooper emphasizes Christian Cooper’s race multiple times.
Four days later, Corina and some 30 other Black scientists—members of an online group called Black AF in STEM—devised a way to celebrate Black birders like Christian Cooper. The result: Black Birders Week, a seven-day celebration of Black birders and nature enthusiasts.
It came together in 48 hours. People created graphics and planned daily engagements on Instagram and Twitter, including the #postabird challenge that encouraged folks to post a bird photo or bird fact.
“Recent events have shed light on the obstacles and potential dangers Black people face while enjoying outdoor recreation,” read an Instagram post by the organizing group, Black AF in Stem. “Nature is meant to be enjoyed by everyone.”
Over the course of that week, the movement’s social accounts generated hundreds of millions of impressions, and two livestreams on the National Audubon Society’s Facebook page attracted about 200,000 people.
The effort has since grown into a movement that’s persisted beyond the June celebration, and Corina hopes it will continue catalyzing change and normalizing being Black outdoors. Black AF in Stem is planning another Black Birders Week for 2021.
Still, there’s a long way to go. For all the hardship Corina has experienced since Black Birders Week began—the difficult questions from people on social media, the online racism—she’s also witnessed the good that comes from mobilizing people around a cause. The Black Birders Week social accounts have swelled with followers, and brands have shared the message widely. Conversations about racism outdoors are becoming more frequent and nuanced.
And, for maybe the first time, Newsome isn’t the only Black birder she knows.