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With #blackbirdersweek, graduate student helps amplify African American scientists

From the back-porch steps of her friend’s house, where she’s been social distancing for the last few weeks, Sheridan Alford has a view of a nice stand of pine and oak trees.

She watches as a little eastern bluebird comes and goes, fulfilling its bluebird duties. It’s an exciting moment—she hasn’t seen one of these birds before. This experience is why Alford, a master’s student at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, came outside in the first place.

“It’s super easy to do,” she says of birdwatching. It’s something she’s learned in the past few years, since being a student at Warnell, and it’s grown on her. “You don’t need a lot of stuff. It’s really for everyone.”

As an African American woman studying wildlife sciences, Alford also realizes that too often, the conversation about birdwatching—and STEM topics in general—doesn’t include people who look like her. So when Christian Cooper, an African American man and avid birder, was harassed by a woman while birding in Central Park, Alford and a group of friends with similar passions decided they wanted to shine a spotlight on other black birders.

So, #blackbirdersweek was born.

Alford is part of a GroupMe chat that had about 30 members, all of whom shared a love of birding. “After the Cooper situation in Central Park, it was proposed in the group that we should make a black birders day. Then it turned into a week. Then we started brainstorming days and different hashtags,” says Alford. She is one of about six chat members who took the lead on setting up social media accounts and other steps to make #blackbirdersweek a reality.

Kaylee Arnold, a doctoral student at UGA’s Odom School of Ecology, also played a role in the event planning.

“We threw it together in a week. We created the Twitter page last Friday and it already has 20,000 followers,” Alford adds. “The reception has been great.”

Birdwatching is an activity that can happen anywhere, whether you live in a large city or out in the country. It doesn’t require much equipment; Alford uses the eBird app to log what she sees (“It’s like real-life Pokemon,” she says, laughing). Binoculars come in handy, but all you really need are time and space to look.

And Alford admits, she didn’t know much about birdwatching before she came to UGA. “All I knew was I liked animals and I liked being outside,” she says. She received her bachelor’s degree from UGA in 2019, and part of her coursework involved taking a class focused on a certain aspect of animal sciences. She chose ornithology.

“That really taught me a lot about the ins and outs of birds, and all the field trips we went on were very pivotal, because they allowed me to see what you could do with birds,” she says. From a trip to Tall Timbers in Florida where she held a bird for the first time, to internships where she investigated various species, her interest in birding and birdwatching began to burn more intensely.

“I was like, not only is this cool, but I can use this to impact others,” she adds. “It’s a hobby of mine that has turned into more than that.”

It can also be a solitary sport. Even in her GroupMe chat, Alford says she only knew a handful personally. But still, birdwatching in the African American community is a thing—so, why not amplify it, the group members decided.

“People were really playing to their strengths in pulling it together, and when there’s a common goal to promote and amplify black birders and black people in nature, it just really became a great cohort of people,” she says. “We wanted to give everyone a chance to share their voice and say what they wanted to say about the issue.”

In response, #blackbirdersweek has received national attention. Media outlets such as CNN. NPR and Forbes, along with science-minded publications such as Smithsonian Magazine, Science News and Audubon Magazine have picked up the story.

The online event also connects to Alford’s master’s research, which is assessing African American involvement in birdwatching.

The COVID-19 pandemic turned her summer plans upside-down—she was preparing to survey visitors to Atlanta’s Piedmont Park this summer, asking them about their experience and exposure to birdwatching. Obviously, that got put on hold, but she’s hopeful she can continue the work later this summer.

The larger goal, she says, is to change the perception of what a scientist is, and what a birdwatcher is. Now, with millions of social media users sharing the hashtag, the group of birdwatchers are showing they can make a difference.

What started as a negative incident in Central Park can be upended into a positive movement across the country.

“A lot of the hashtags we have are focused on posting and promoting people’s work, or people in general. I hope that people realize that there’s a lot of black birders and black scientists,” says Alford. “So, it’s about visibility, and how can we amplify people who are underrepresented in these realms.”

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