A #BlackBirdersWeek cofounder aims to amplify black nature enthusiasts

Wildlife biologist Danielle Belleny hopes to raise the profile of black birders in a hobby often stereotyped as white

Danielle Belleny standing in a canyon

Wildlife biologist Danielle Belleny hikes the Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park in August of 2018. She's a cofounder of #BlackBirdersWeek, a social media campaign to amplify black birders and outdoor enthusiasts.

D. Belleny

A black youngster grins widely while holding a falcon bigger than his head. Beside a beaver pond, a black ecologist in waders inspects a sediment core sampler. A bat wriggles in the hands of a black evolutionary biologist doing fieldwork in Belize. 

These photos and hundreds more bird facts, questions and experiences are flooding social media as part of #BlackBirdersWeek, an initiative aimed at recognizing and uplifting black birders and nature enthusiasts. The social media campaign runs May 31 through June 5 and includes Q&A sessions, a Facebook livestream discussion of Birding While Black, and prompts for sharing photos on Twitter and Instagram of birds and being out enjoying nature.

#BlackBirdersWeek comes amid nationwide protests against the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and many other black people at the hands of the police. The protests have elevated the importance and urgency of the campaign for its founders, @BlackAFinSTEM, a Twitter-based group of black individuals who work in science or related fields. They began planning #BlackBirdersWeek in the wake of an incident on May 25 — the same day George Floyd was killed — in which Christian Cooper, a black birder, asked a white woman in New York City’s Central Park to follow park rules on leashing dogs. The woman refused, eventually yelling that she was calling the police “to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”

Cooper’s experience resonated with other black birders. “What happened to him could have happened to any of us,” says Danielle Belleny, a wildlife biologist in San Antonio, Texas, and a cofounder of #BlackBirdersWeek.

She too has had the police called on her while working as a field biologist and while birding. One of her favorite birding memories — the first time she spotted a short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), “a gorgeous bird with brown streaks on its body, striking yellow eyes and these little feather tufts that look like ears on the top of their head” — while in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., is marred by the memory of a stranger trailing her for “looking suspicious.” 

“I really hate the stereotype that black people don’t do outdoor activities,” Belleny says. “It’s just not true,” and makes it harder for black nature enthusiasts to recreate, relax and fully develop their interests.

Belleny’s love of the outdoors started early. “There’s a photo of me holding a huge rat snake as a 4-year-old,” she says. Nature shows hosted by people like wildlife conservationist Jeff Corwin further developed her love of nature, but she felt a disconnect because she didn’t see herself represented. “I didn’t know wildlife biology was a job I could have.” 

Feelings of isolation as a black woman in wildlife science continued in graduate school at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, and her later work in conservation. “It can be really lonely when you don’t see other people like you,” enjoying and working in the outdoors, she says.

Danielle Belleny
Danielle Belleny holds a scaled quail (Callipepla squamata) at the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in Rotan, Texas, in March of 2016.D. Belleny

The field sciences are overwhelmingly white. In 2018, individuals who identify as black or African-American received less than 1 percent of doctorates awarded in the fields of ecology, evolutionary biology and wildlife biology, according to data from the U.S. National Science Foundation. Though Belleny loved her work, “I was really upset about my position and considered changing careers to one I could see more black people in,” she says. 

Belleny’s doubts disappeared once she joined an online community of black birders and naturalists that would become @BlackAFinSTEM. “It’s just a place for us to hang out and talk to each other,” she says. Feeling part of a community made a huge difference — one they now seek to share with the greater online community.

#BlackBirdersWeek aims to amplify and expand that community by showing “that black people are outdoors, we do this, we love it, and we take up space,” Belleny says. “I hope young people interested in STEM will see it and realize that they belong here, too.”

And that community has solidified Belleny’s plan to continue working as a wildlife biologist focused on preserving biodiversity. Recently she has developed management strategies for species of conservation concern, like the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) or piping plover (Charadrius melodus). 

“Ecological communities are more resilient when there’s more biodiversity,” Belleny says. #BlackBirdersWeek aims to show that diversity strengthens birding and the broader field sciences community, too. “We want to advocate for diversity in birding because it will create a stronger and better community for everyone.”

The campaign has allowed black birders to use their passion and expertise to stand in solidarity as a community against racism. The response has been overwhelming, with hundreds of black birders, scientists and nature enthusiasts sharing pictures and stories of them outside doing what they love. “I’ve shed a couple really happy tears. It’s just so nice to see so many beautiful black faces,” Belleny says. “We deserve to be in this space and we deserve to be safe.”

Jonathan Lambert is the staff writer for biological sciences, covering everything from the origin of species to microbial ecology. He has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from Cornell University.

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