The realities of being a black birdwatcher

Christian Cooper speaks with CNN's Don Lemon about the encounter he had with a white woman who called the police on him during an encounter involving her unleashed dog in Central Park.

Posted: May 27, 2020 8:21 PM
Updated: May 27, 2020 8:21 PM

Dudley Edmondson has long had to deal with people calling the police on him while out in nature.

As a black birdwatcher and professional nature photographer, his presence with a camera can arouse suspicion among white people. He has had people accuse him of being drunk, or on drugs, or taking photos of people's homes in order to come back later and rob them.

He's been accused of "a number of things that I'm guessing in their minds fits more the description of what an African American male would be doing, as opposed to photographing nature, as opposed to watching birds," he told CNN.

Edmondson spoke to CNN about racism in the wilderness in the wake of Christian Cooper's experience in Central Park on Monday morning, when a minor dispute over an unleashed dog led a white woman to call police and falsely claim "an African American man is threatening my life."

Several black birdwatchers said that Cooper's experience was an extreme example of a common situation in which they are made to feel unwelcome while out in public, natural spaces.

Drew Lanham, a Clemson University professor of wildlife ecology and a fellow black birdwatcher, said he's gotten threats or intimidation from others that made him wary.

"It's almost like watching with one eye in the binocular and one eye outside of that field of view trying to understand where you are, in addition to identifying birds," he said.

Edmondson, the author of "The Black and Brown Faces in America's Wild Places," agreed.

"You can't totally and completely be relaxed in these kinds of spaces," he said.

It's a problem that the Audubon Society, the nation's leading bird advocacy group, noted in a statement Tuesday supporting Cooper.

"Black Americans often face terrible daily dangers in outdoor spaces, where they are subjected to unwarranted suspicion, confrontation, and violence," said Audubon senior vice president for state programs Rebeccah Sanders. "The outdoors -- and the joy of birds -- should be safe and welcoming for all people. That's the reality Audubon and our partners are working hard to achieve."

'You don't look like any nature photographer I've ever seen'

The issue is particularly acute for birdwatching, a hobby that generally skews whiter, older and more male. Lanham, who has written extensively about birding while black, said he was almost 40 years old before he met another black birder.

"In birding, which is one of the whitest things that you can do as a hobby, you stand out," he said. "You're different, as many people of color are when they're in a situation where they're a minority."

The community of black birdwatchers is relatively small and many of them know of each other. Edmondson said when he heard about a black birdwatcher's racist experience in Central Park, he initially thought it was Jason Ward, a black birdwatcher who hosts a show called "Birds of North America." Christian Cooper himself has appeared on that show in an episode about warblers in Central Park.

Their rarity can sometimes make them a target. Lanham's work as an ecologist has taken him into far-flung rural areas of the country, and at times he has felt acutely threatened.

A few years ago, he was standing on a public road in South Carolina watching white-crowned sparrows that were on private land. That's when the landowner approached him and used the n-word, started talking about "picking cotton," and mentioned that he was armed and hated trespassers, Lanham said.

"That's just one of the incidents. It doesn't happen daily," Lanham said. "But when something like that happens to you, or you feel a threat, and the hair rises up on the back of your neck or the goose flesh on your arm, and you get a feeling that things just aren't right, that you don't need to be in a certain place, then you pay attention to that instinct."

Edmondson said he was once photographing plants for a field guide on wildflowers in northern Minnesota, where he lives, when a woman accused him of casing people's homes. He told her that he lived nearby and was a professional photographer.

"Her response to me was, 'You don't look like any nature photographer I've ever seen,'" he said. "So you get these kinds of things, but like I said, I've been dealing with these things for over 40 years and I just decided to ignore them for the most part."

Corina Newsome, a black biology master's student at Georgia Southern University studying birds, said she prominently displays birdwatching equipment when out exploring so that nobody gets the wrong idea.

"When I'm by myself, like if I'm birding or if I'm exploring outside, I feel like I have to publicly display that I'm not trespassing or doing something sinister outside," she said. "I feel like I have to go above and beyond so that the people who are driving by or walking by don't think that I'm someone they need to call the police on."

In some situations, she'll ask a white birdwatcher to join her as a form of racism protection.

"Whenever I want to go exploring in a really remote area, I always want to bring white people with me because that is the easiest way to vouch for my presence."

Searching for owls, for example, can only be done at night, and that can be a risky situation, she said.

"If you're a black person, especially if you're a black man, that's probably not a safe activity to do alone, even if your white counterparts do it alone all the time," she said.

Edmondson said he's never let these issues hold him back, and he encouraged people of color to use the 640 million acres of public land the federal government owns.

"I'm just not 100% sure people of color understand how public land works. It does not belong to white people. Never has, never will. It belongs to the citizens of the United States of America. So if you want to go to Joshua Tree, if you want to go to a forest in North Carolina, you totally have a right to do that, and you should not let anyone deter you from doing those kinds of things," he said.

"I'm always trying to get that message out to let people of color know that public land belongs to them and there's millions of acres of it, and it is yours to access as much as anyone else's."

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