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‘Almost like a religion’: Black Birders Week fawns over feathered friends
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‘Almost like a religion’: Black Birders Week fawns over feathered friends

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RALEIGH — Deja Perkins can’t remember the exact moment she started observing birds.

Her parents tell her that as a kid in Chicago, she had a particular affinity for Canada geese, even calling them her “babies.”

Now, years later, Perkins never leaves the house without a pair of binoculars.

A recent graduate student in Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at N.C. State University, Perkins is a bird watcher — her passion for ornithology solidified during her years in college and studying bird diversity across the Triangle.

“It was a thing that I did to escape,” she said.

That escape has meant a lot in the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, Perkins and a small group of Black naturalists and wildlife scientists came together to organize a national ”Black Birders Week.” The event was borne from an incident in which Christian Cooper, a Black bird watcher, was harassed by a white woman in New York City’s Central Park.

The week-long campaign, put together in 48 hours, aimed to highlight Black bird watchers, naturalists and other outdoor enthusiasts, as well as to acknowledge the potential harassment Black people may encounter in outdoor spaces.

In 2021, Perkins says Black Birders Week organizers wanted to focus on joy in the outdoors and get more people involved.

“This year was really about highlighting that joy and actually getting people outside,” she said.

In her own experience, Perkins said she has often been the youngest and only Black bird watcher on the community bird hikes she’s joined.

In a 2016 report, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found 82% of birders surveyed identified as white, while close to 4% identified as Black American.

Matthew Morgan, an environmental educator based in Charlotte, participated in Black Birders Week last year.

“It finally gave me a sense that I wasn’t alone out here,” he said.

In the years to come, Morgan said he’d love to see a Black Birders Conference or a similar gathering as an opportunity to build the network, share stories and learn from one another.

“I’m proud of where we’re going in terms of treating diversity within the field of birding and outdoor-related fields in general,” he said. “Even though we do have this week, there’s still more work to be done.”

Perkins said people should know that bird watching skills can be passed down through generations. Harriet Tubman used barred owl calls to alert those seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad, she noted.

And while being a birder requires patience, it can start in small ways.

She encouraged those interested to take notice of the avian species in their day-to-day activities. Apps free to download like Merlin Bird ID and BirdNET are also good ways to get more comfortable recognizing birds, she said.

Darrell Stover is a lecturer in Africana Studies and the Science, Technology and Society program at N.C. State. He, too, is passionate about getting more people — especially people of color — to take up birding.

Stover’s mother gave him his first bird book when he was 12. She would frequently take him to the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., where he grew up, and point out birds.

His favorite is the stocky Belted Kingfisher, known for its piercing cackle and dramatic hunting style of diving into bodies of water.

“How often do we sit quietly and take in the things around us?” asked Stover, who lives in Cary. “It’s almost like a religion for me to get outdoors and be in nature, and yes, even to bird watch.”

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