In May 2020, Chris Cooper was birding at The Ramble in New York City’s Central Park. He recounts the incident that garnered national attention and offers his perspective on diversity in the outdoors.
The Joys and Challenges of Birding While Black
Published: September 4, 2020
Christian Cooper: Birds don’t care what color you are. And the thing I always say is that the birds belong to all of us. No matter what color you are, no matter what your sexual orientation is, no matter what your gender identity is. The birds belong to all of us.
They use the same primary senses as we do, their eyes and their ears. So that’s why we find them so spectacularly beautiful, why we can enjoy their songs. But also there’s the romance of birds because they can fly. And that just symbolizes the ultimate in freedom.
When I’m out in the field and I have my binoculars, a lot of times I feel like I’m particularly suspect that someone thinks I’m up to no good. There are places where I would love to see the birds cause they’re great birding spots. But I hesitate to go there because I again am afraid of the reception I will receive as a Black man, as a gay man, as a man who is not a Christian.
In Central Park, I was birding in The Ramble. The Ramble is a protected area because there’s so much wildlife there and dogs in the Ramble are supposed to be on the leash at all times. And ended up in a verbal conflict with a woman whose dog was off the leash. And I was pretty adamant that I was gonna record until the dog was on the leash and she didn’t like that. So she said, “If you don’t stop recording me, I’m going to call the police and tell them an African-American man is threatening my life.”
This is a woman who used the politically correct term and she still went to that dark place and tried to tap into an expectation that if the police heard “African-American man threatening my life,” they would come whistling down on my head with special vengeance.
She was tapping into this deep vein of racial bias. It is not new, it is centuries old. It leads to people getting dead. That’s how George Floyd died. Because a guy was Black, this white cop decided it was OK for him to keep his knee on his neck for eight minutes, and 46 seconds until he was dead. It’s what led some white suburban homeowners to chase down a man going for a jog and shoot him dead and then say it was self-defense.
I don’t think there’s a Black person in America alive who hasn’t encountered racial bias at some point in their lives. Birding alone, you’re suspect. If someone’s going to be shot as a potential prowler with a gun in the Ramble, it’s not gonna be a white person doing exactly the same thing under exactly the same circumstances. It’s gonna be me. So that’s always in the back of my head.
I’ve been trying to get kids in underserved areas exposed to birding and birds in the outdoors. Cause a lot of these kids don’t think that that’s accessible to them. And I like to get them out there and show them, “Hey, look, this is yours, too, and it’s here in your backyard.” So you can broaden the inclusion, reaching out to kids and then the kids bring the families. I think the most important thing is make them feel welcome, make sure they know that they belong.
We all have to have a hand in fixing cause Black people can’t fix this. We can’t do it. It’s not something we can fix. It’s something that white people have to face up to and address and try to fix. And hopefully, it looks like at this moment in history, maybe that’s happening. Maybe we’re finally starting to address that. I hope so. We’re not going to solve it. I’m not that naive, but maybe we can make some progress, and that would be awesome.
Illustrated by: Daniela Gamba
Produced by: Ari Daniel & Caitlin Saks
Production Assistance: Drew Powell & Robin Kazmier
The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Wil Hershberger, Geoffrey A. Keller, Jay McGowan, Andrea L. Priori, Andrew Spencer, Gerrit Vyn
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020