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Research and Innovation

On How #BlackBirdersWeek Celebrated Black Naturalists, Birders

Deja Perkins birding.
Deja Perkins, an NC State master's student, helped organize #BlackBirdersWeek.

When asked about her favorite bird, Deja Perkins has trouble choosing just one.

If she has to choose, though, her favorite would be the bald eagle – a bird that first captivated her when she was beginning her journey into ornithology, or the scientific study of birds.

“Still to this day, seeing them soaring or diving for fish is really exciting for me,” said Perkins.

Perkins, a graduate student at NC State who expects to earn her master’s degree this summer, helped to lead an effort this week to raise visibility for Black people in the outdoors, and specifically in birding.

She teamed up with young Black naturalists and scientists to launch a social media initiative called #BlackBirdersWeek. The goal was to raise visibility for Black people in the outdoors and to promote dialogue on how Black science, technology, engineering and math professionals navigate racism within their fields. 

The work intersects with her research. In the lab of Madhusudan Katti, associate professor in NC State’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Sciences, Perkins studied bird populations in the Triangle region. She wants to understand how bird survey methods across urban areas can reflect racial and socioeconomic inequalities.

She served as project coordinator for the inaugural Triangle Bird Count, a bird population survey in the Triangle region that was designed to get a better understanding of the birds that live in Raleigh, Durham and other urban centers. The researchers recruited participants for the citizen science study and were particularly interested in bringing in people who may not have viewed themselves as bird watchers.

“I was trying to look to see if certain data sets were able to pick up on the human influences that shape bird communities,” Perkins said of her research. “Are they able to pick up on socioeconomic issues and inequalities that are found within cities because of the biases in volunteers, and where they go to survey?”

On the last day of #BlackBirdersWeek, which is devoted to highlighting Black female birders, we wanted to share a snapshot of our recent (virtual) conversation with Perkins.

The Abstract: How did #BlackBirdersWeek come about?

Deja Perkins: I’m a part of this Black in Stem group – it’s a group of young Black professionals across STEM disciplines from the U.S. and Canada and parts of Europe.

We’ve been in this group for a year. After that incident with Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper in New York, where she was falsely accusing him of hurting her or threatening her, and he was a Black birder, one of the group members said we should try and highlight Black birders.

We really wanted to highlight the experience of Black birders and how our experience of the outdoors is different. Especially since there are a number of Black professionals in the conservation field, our experience is different, and we all realize that we could have been Christian Cooper. We have had experiences with the police, we have all had experiences similar to him. We knew that it was an event that we needed to highlight and create discussions around.

A group of us decided: “Let’s make it happen.” We decided on what we would highlight each day, and worked together and put together #BlackBirdersWeek in 48 hours.

TA: When did you get interested in studying birds?

Perkins: I did an internship I think my freshman or sophomore year of undergrad. I was an intern with the Student Conservation Association, as a part of their Career Discovery Internship Program, and I was placed at Minnesota National Valley Wildlife Refuge. I was a visitors services intern, and the only role that I felt I could contribute to was engaging with the public – since I was so new to the refuge – through talking to the public about birds.

We had a bird feeder and bird observation window. I would stand in front of the window every day and learn about the birds coming to the feeder so I could engage the public with the resources, aka the birds, at the refuge. I was able to see bald eagles every day, see Cooper’s Hawks hunting at the bird feeders – these types of encounters I had never seen before, especially growing up in the inner city of Chicago. Being in Minnesota was the first time I had ever seen a bald eagle. Having those experiences stuck in my mind and made me want to learn about birds and work with birds because I thought they were so fascinating.

I got a little bit more hands-on experience working with birds in Mississippi helping with bird banding stations – mapping avian productivity stations as well as working with USDA Wildlife Services at their National Wildlife Research Center, and helping them with bird related research.

It really influenced me to want to work with birds even more. Moving into me being at NC State, I found someone who was looking at urban bird research, which was something I was very interested in especially growing up in Chicago, and I really started to want to look at environmental justice issues.

TA: When did your interest in birds begin?

Perkins: I used to hate birds if I’m being honest.

I always loved animals, and when I was a kid, my mom got me a parakeet. Birds are not pets for children. I didn’t know how to handle this bird. His name was Tweety. I would try and grab him and he would bite me. I didn’t know how to handle him, so I felt like he hated me, that made me… let’s just say I didn’t like them. As a kid I loved geese. That was really the only bird that I was able to notice growing up in Chicago – Canada geese – we had a huge population of them in Chicago. I would always call those my babies. That’s why mom got me a bird.

After Tweety, I lost my connection with birds for a long time, it wasn’t really until I got back into undergrad that I re-established my love for them.

TA: How did you get interested in birding as a hobby?

Perkins: Having to do these systematic bird point count surveys where I would have to stand in one place for 10 minutes and count all the birds I could see and hear, is what really got me into birding. I was really starting to notice where birds were in the city. Since I already had this love for birds, and I was recording what I was seeing in a special time of the year, I just decided why not, I have this love of birds, let’s see what I could see all year round…

It’s almost like I’m studying birds year round. I’m keeping track of what I’m seeing and visiting the same locations over the course of a year. Aside from the fact that being able to observe birds is cool, it’s a way for me to be outside and de-stress, and relax.

TA: What’s the impact of #BlackBirdersWeek and what’s next?

Perkins: Moving forward, I think what has really been amazing about this is the amount of support we’ve gotten from a lot of large organizations … and a lot of companies reaching out to us wanting to work with us. I know the Association of Field Ornithologists is providing free memberships for young Black ornithologists. …. It’s allowing us the space, and providing access for students, especially since a lot of Black students don’t have the ability to be in these spaces without assistance. These are some of the small steps that are helping move forward.

I think inviting and having discussions, being open about our experiences, and talking about how (people) can be more welcoming and inviting in the future.

I think the visibility that has been brought about by the week has really shown a lot of organizations that there are a lot of us here, and hopefully they would be more willing to hire us.

I think this week has allowed that connection to form between a lot of Black people who are already in the conservation and natural space, allowing us to find mentors, and really being able to figure out who our allies are in this entire process.

TA: Can you talk about some of the issues of inequality in access to natural spaces?

Perkins: The best way that I could explain that is through parks. You have parks in minority neighborhoods and you have parks in majority neighborhoods, but they are not funded equally, and that is reflected in the habitat for birds as well as in the resources and natural amenities for people.

A lot of that is the result of historical structures such as segregation and redlining within cities and in a lot of areas. There is a recent study that showed areas that are redlined have less tree cover – which is an environmental justice issue because tree cover and health are connected.

Birds in cities rely on trees, and where you have less tree cover, less diversity of trees, you have lower bird diversity. You have areas with higher income, which usually have higher diversity – something called the biological luxury effect. You have these patterns within cities that are reflected from these historical systematic structures that really are still present today, that really reflect those cultural structures that were set up in the past.