Birding While Black
The job I volunteered for was to record every bird I could see or hear in a three-minute interval. I am supposed to do that fifty times. Look, listen, and list for three minutes. Get in the car. Drive a half mile. Stop. Get out. Look, listen, and list again. It’s a routine thousands of volunteers have followed during springs and summers all across North America since 1966. The data is critical for ornithologists to understand how breeding birds are faring across the continent.
Up until now the going has been fun and easy, more leisurely than almost any “work” anyone could imagine. But here I am, on stop number thirty-two of the Laurel Falls Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) route: a large black man in one of the whitest places in the state, sitting on the side of the road with binoculars pointed toward a house with the Confederate flag proudly displayed. Rumbling trucks passing by, a honking horn or two, and curious double takes are infrequent but still distract me from the task at hand. Maybe there’s some special posthumous award given for dying in the line of duty on a BBS route--perhaps a roadside plaque honoring my bird-censusing skills.
My mind plays horrific scenes of an old black-and-white photograph I’ve seen before--gleeful throngs at a lynching party. Pale faces glow grimly in evil light. A little girl smiles broadly. The pendulant, black-skinned guest of dishonor swings anonymously, grotesquely, lifelessly. I can hear Billie Holiday’s voice.
The mountain morning, which started out cool, is rapidly heating into the June swoon. I grip the clipboard tighter with sweaty hands, ignoring as best I can the stars and bars flapping menacingly in the yard across the road. The next three minutes will seem much longer.
On mornings like this I sometimes question why I choose to do such things. Was I crazy to take this route, up here, so far away from anything? What if someone in that house is not so keen on having a black man out here, maybe checking out things--or people--he shouldn’t be? I’ve heard that some mountain folks don’t like nosy outsiders poking around. Yet here I am, a black man birding.
Over the years I’ve listed hundreds of species in hundreds of places, from coast to coast and abroad, too. I’ve seen a shit-ton of birds from sea level to alpine tundra. But as a black man in America I’ve grown up with a profile. Society at large has certain boxes I’m supposed to fit into, and most of the labels on that box aren’t good. Birders have a profile as well, a much more positively perceived one. Being a birder in the United States means that you’re probably a middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated white woman. While the first three adjectives apply to me, I am black and a man and therefore a birding anomaly. The chances of seeing someone who looks like me while on the trail are only slightly greater than those of sighting an ivory-billed woodpecker. In my lifetime I’ve encountered fewer than ten black birders. We’re true rarities in our own right.
For three years I’ve been responsible for this route, the only mountain BBS in the state. The scenery seemed worth the work. For good portions of the route the Blue Ridge Mountains crest the horizon. Birding in and out of open land and forests, with field sparrows bouncing songs off the broom sedge at one stop and hooded warblers blasting from a laurel-cloaked cove at the next, I sometimes have to pinch myself. Stop number twenty-four, beside an old apple orchard, is spectacular. Warbling blue grosbeaks, buzzing prairie warblers, and chattering yellow-breasted chats usually make the three minutes go by quickly. Earlier, when a lone bobwhite called from somewhere in the tangle of weeds and brush, I’d taken it as good omen for the day.
“Okay, 9:04. I need to start. A wood thrush--good, that’s the first one for today. Summer tanager--no, scarlet tanager--two of ‘em. American crows--sounds like maybe three of those . . .”
In the midst of ticking off species the thoughts begin to filter through my head again. Maybe these folks are the “heritage, not hate” type. I don’t see any black lawn jockeys, wheelless cars hoisted up on cinder blocks, or rabid pit bulls in the yard. The only irritant beyond the flag is a persistently yapping Chihuahua, announcing my presence to anyone within earshot.
“OK. Was that a goldfinch singing from the top of that poplar? Definitely goldfinch.” A quick glance at my watch. I still have a full two minutes to go.
A yellow-billed cuckoo croaks from somewhere in the neighboring woodlot and I add it to the list. But I don’t catch the next bird’s call because I’m distracted. “Is somebody coming?” I imagine a scraggly-haired hillbilly who is going to require things I’m unwilling to give. Past incidents don’t fade quickly from memory, especially when the threats of danger were real, raising a sour-slick tang of bile in the back of my throat.
On one of my first jobs with the Department of Natural Resources, I thought my color would cost me my life. My supervisor, Kate Stryker, and I went out to deploy live traps for bats and small mammals up in the remote Jocassee Gorges, a maze of rhododendron-choked mountain coves, small streams, and pine-studded ridges. It’s as close to wilderness as there is in the portion of the Upstate folks used to call the “Dark Corner.”
I’d heard that folks in the mountains didn’t like strangers of any color. I was a strange stranger, and maybe not the person locals thought should be working with a white woman. Kate was a super-observant naturalist, who noticed the slightest nuances in tooth pattern or fur color--but was, I think, oblivious to the threat I perceived.
Riding on an old logging road just wide enough for one vehicle, we met another truck. The rusting, dented pickup’s cab was full of three men. One of the vehicles would have to give way to the other on the narrow track, and so we pulled over. Kate and I each threw up a hand, offering the customary southern pickup-passerby wave. Their responses seemed halfhearted. Hardly a finger went up. Instead the men stared, heads slowly swiveling. Their looks bored through the windshield and wrapped themselves around my throat. The six eyes seemed to be making decisions I didn’t want to be a part of.
I turned around as they rumbled by. Their brake lights suddenly flashed and the backup lights came on. The truck made a three-point turn for the only reason I could imagine: they’d decided that they didn’t want us back there. My stomach knotted. I wondered how long it would take the authorities to recover our decomposing corpses from the rhododendron hells where these hillbillies would dump us after they did whatever the fuck it was they wanted to. Kate nonchalantly wondered aloud at the trailing truck’s intent but seemed more concerned that they’d maybe screwed with the pitfall traps we were going to check than the prospect of impending assault.
I was on an edge that I’d only experienced in very bad dreams. The going was slow and the men followed us by a hundred yards or so. They kept pace, turn for turn. The knot in my belly tightened. We were on a dead-end road with no escape. We were unarmed. Without question the men in the truck would have guns and knives--probably a rope, too. For the first time in my newborn wildlife career I was questioning whether following my outdoor passion was truly worth it.
I’m not sure whether I prayed. Back then God was still an option in such circumstances. But whatever wish I threw out of the pickup win