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Black Birders Harness Social Media To Push For Field Safety

 Lauren Pharr looks for red-cockaded woodpecker chicks as part of her PhD research project. Pharr conducts her fieldwork in the Sandhills Gamelands.
Lauren Pharr looks for red-cockaded woodpecker chicks as part of her PhD research project. Pharr conducts her fieldwork in the Sandhills Gamelands.

Lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic motivated some people to pick up new hobbies, like baking or knitting. Lauren Pharr turned to bird blogging.

“[I was] in my house, just twiddling my thumbs,” Pharr said. “I was just kind of like, ‘Oh, let’s start a blog and start sharing all of my birding info’.”

Pharr is a PhD student and avian ecologist at North Carolina State University pursuing a degree in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology. During lockdown, she started blogging about her research, which investigated the impacts of light and noise pollution on bird survival.

“There were a ton of people who would reach out to me to say, ‘Wow, I never knew how light pollution could impact birds,’ and wanting to know how to fix these environmental issues,” Pharr said. “That’s like the icing on the cake right there, because it lets me know you’re wanting to fix this problem. You’re wanting to be part of the solution.”

A year later, Pharr posts regularly on her Instagram and Twitteraccounts about birding. She is an intern with the North Carolina Sea Grant and has written several blog posts for The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science series.

But as a Black birder, science communication has grown to be about more than sharing research for Pharr. It’s also about visibility: letting her roughly 6,000 Twitter followers and 6,000 Instagram followers know about her experiences as a Black birder, and the ground that remains to be covered when it comes to keeping her safe in the field.

On May 25, 2020, in Central Park, science writer and birdwatcher Christian Cooper asked a woman named Amy Cooper to leash her dog as per the park rules. She refused and called the police, telling them repeatedly that “an African American man was threatening her life.” Christian Cooper filmed the encounter, which went viralon social media as an example of racial profiling.

Christian Cooper was birdwatching at the time of the incident, but the experience of being questioned for being outdoors while Black is not uncommon. During scientific fieldwork, Pharr says this means researchers must have their personal safety in mind whenever they step outside to collect data.

J. Drew Lanham is the alumni distinguished professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University and has been teaching there for over 20 years. He feels that research universities are lacking when it comes to adequate protections in the field for Black researchers.

“I think institutions are still largely blind to [the need for additional field safety measures], in part because there are so few students of color doing field work,” Lanham said. “For Black students, there are so few that the questions are hardly ever asked.”

Murry Burgess is a graduate research assistant at North Carolina State University and is studying fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology like Pharr. Her research focuses on the effects of manmade light sources, like city lights, on the growth of barn swallow chicks.

Burgess conducts her research in a rural community west of Raleigh, and she often sees Confederate flags on the route to her research site. To her, a lack of field safety can prevent Black students from considering careers in the natural sciences.

“If you don’t feel safe or comfortable doing the work, that’s going to potentially deter you from doing the work,” Burgess said.

In mid-May, Burgess submitted a video recording to the board of NC State’s Natural Resources Foundation, where she advocated for better field safety measures for students of color. One of the ideas Burgess suggested was a magnetic bumper sticker that she could put on her field vehicle to identify herself as an NCSU student conducting official research.

Following the video submission, the board put Burgess’ idea into action. At the end of May, Burgess’ research advisor Caren Cooper designed and ordered a large magnet for Burgess to place on her car door and identify herself as a university researcher when she is out in the field. The magnets are not yet widely available from the university, but Burgess hopes student interest will motivate the school to make them accessible to all field researchers.

To tackle field safety at a systemic level, Lanham advises institutions to recruit a more diverse pool of students, so that faculty and staff can become more aware of the resources necessary to cater to each student’s needs. He also emphasizes the need for institutions to be upfront about field safety when they are introducing students to a new project, and make sure students aren’t hesitant to ask about safety and communications measures.

“On the one hand, you want to be treated fairly, but you don’t want to be treated the same,” said Lanham. “For a Black female student, for example, to be treated like a white male student in terms of safety considerations…that’s a big blind spot.”

To address safety concerns relating to birding, the National Audubon Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to bird conservation, is putting together a national field safety manual, as well as field safety trainings that universities could offer to students in the future. The Society plans to offer trainings on topics such as deescalation in the field and the culture of field safety, and will train its members first before attempting to open the trainings to local chapters and partners.

Alison Holloran, executive director at Audubon Rockies and a vice president of the National Audubon Society, is one of the core members involved in developing the training. She says their format and content are still in development but that their goal is to equip birders with the resources they might need to protect their physical and emotional safety in the field.

“The [Black and Indigenous People of Color] community has been overlooked for a very long time,” Holloran said. “They tend to face a lot of things that their white counterparts don’t. So making sure that they’re heard and that we’re addressing issues across the board is really our mission.”

In response to Christian Cooper being racially profiled in Central Park, over 30 Black scientists and naturalists founded Black Birders Week in 2020: five days of virtual events aiming to start discussions about safety in the outdoors. The event occurred again in 2021 from May 30 to June 1.

Prior to Black Birders Week in 2020, Pharr had about 2,000 followers on Instagram and 1,000 on Twitter. After being highlighted as a birder during the week, her follower counts began to increase, and she received questions and interview requests from people looking to learn more about her work. That push motivated her to post more regularly on social media about her research, and set her on her journey as a science communicator.

Using social media to share her experiences allows Pharr to reach a wider group of people, and educate her audience about issues they might not have noticed before.

“With Black Birders Week, there were a ton of people who were like, ‘Wow, I never knew this was happening. I never knew this was a problem,’” said Pharr. “That awareness, I think, is everything. That’s what starts people to be like, ‘Okay, this needs to change.’”

Lanham participated in Black Birders Week as a speaker in 2020. He values the ability of social media to amplify a message to a greater audience but doesn’t see it as the only way to create social change.

“[Social media] is not the end-all, be-all,” Lanham said. “But we’re in the 21st century, and we have to understand that social media is an extraordinarily powerful leverage [and] tool for expansion if used properly.”

Lanham stresses the importance of recognizing Black birders who have been active in the field for years, but who may not be present on social media. He sees birders on social media as a sample size rather than representing the whole of the birding community, and looks at social media as one facet of the larger fight to make birding a more equitable and safe field.

He notes that all activism work may not go viral: grassroots efforts to build relationships with university staff or understand existing university safety policies might not gain instant gratification on Twitter or Instagram, but are just as crucial.

“The work only begins when you say, ‘I’m out here as a Black birder,’” Lanham said. “What I hope happens with the great movement of Black Birders Week is that beyond that, people don’t throw away the ability to join together in ways that are not social media applicable, but that are nonetheless ways that work gets done, so that policy gets changed.”'

In addition to her research and communications work, Burgess is a children’s book author. She self-published her first book, “Why Wolves Howl,” in 2017, and is working on her second book, titled “Sparrow Learns Birds,” about a 5-year old Black girl named Sparrow who learns to identify the bird species in her neighborhood. “Sparrow Learns Birds” will be published by Christy Ottaviano Books, housed under Little, Brown Books.

Burgess hopes the book will get young Black girls excited about the natural world, and plans to write future installments where Sparrow explores reptiles and the rest of the animal kingdom.

“As I entered my college experience, I learned how little [Black women] are represented,” Burgess said. “I want future generations of scientists to have somebody to look up to and see, ‘Oh, a Black woman is doing this thing: maybe I can do this thing as well.’”

Pushes for representation and visibility take many forms, but Burgess sees all of the efforts—from participating in Black Birders Week to advocating for institutional protections—as united under a common goal.

“I do feel like they’re all linked together, from the smallest level of just having interests in outdoor activities to the higher levels of academia and research,” Burgess said. “I would really love for all of those areas to be more equitable, more safe…more accessible as well.”

Pharr plans to keep using her social media to show her followers the birds of North Carolina. She recently completed her first field season studying the red-cockaded woodpecker, and wants to continue educating people about her research and talking about diversity in birding.

“These are difficult subjects to talk about, but I feel like we’re sort of reaching that point where we can sit down and have these educational conversations,” said Pharr. “Where way back when, people didn’t want these conversations to be touched.”

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Adithi Ramakrishnan