Quirks and Quarks

Studying sparrows and launching a movement in support of Black scientists

How one ornithologist spent her summer doing double duty studying coastal marsh sparrows and organizing a social media movement in support of Black birders.

After a white woman called police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park, #BlackBirdersWeek was born

Corina Newsome birding along the Savannah river in Savannah, GA. (Katherine Arntzen, Georgia Southern University)

Originally published on September 12, 2020.

Ornithologist Corina Newsome spent the summer of 2020 in two very different worlds — studying threats to birds in the coastal marshes of Southern Georgia, while also co-launching a massive social media movement.

In May of 2020, after a video surfaced of a white woman calling the police on a Black birdwatcher in New York's Central Park, Newsome and a group of fellow Black naturalists were discussing the event in a group chat.

"We were so grieved to see that happen to him," Newsome told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald. And yet, she adds, "It wasn't shocking. And many of the people in that group had experiences similar to that."

Newsome and her friends decided to do something to celebrate Black birders and naturalists, and to bring awareness to the unique experiences they face because of the colour of their skin.

"It all came together within 48 hours. And we pushed out this week-long celebration of Black people, and birding, and outdoor exploration. And then it ended up taking off much more than we expected."


The premise was simple — post pictures and join the conversation on social media, and use the hashtag #BlackBirdersWeek. 

"The overwhelming response was support, and listening ears, and engaged minds," said Newsome.  "I went online on Twitter, on Instagram, and I searched that hashtag and I just saw so many Black people birding and exploring the outdoors more than I've ever seen in my life. 

"Being able to see so many people like us doing what we also love to do, it brought tears to my eyes."

Corina Newsome helping with a Henslow’s Sparrow banding project in Townsend, GA. (Elizabeth Hunter, PhD)

Another goal of the week was to discuss the specific experiences of Black birders in the field: being followed, being called racial slurs, and having the police called on them. 

"The dangers that Black people face when it comes to racism spans every element of our lives. Birding just happens to be a thing that some Black people do and therefore it shows up in birding," said Newsome.

This has nothing to do with politics. This is about the fact that my Black skin results in very specific and unwelcoming experiences in my life.- Corina Newsome

Newsome was gratified that the campaign snowballed into dozens of other social media movements, like Black in Astro Week, Black Geologists Week, and Black Engineering week. All initiatives to advocate for Black people in science, and to highlight the issues they face in their respective fields.

"It just was so encouraging to see these stories finally getting told and for people to be listening, but also to see Black people meeting new Black people in a space where they are typically one of very few or the only one. And so it just was life-giving. It was encouraging and it was enlightening."

The movement wasn't universally embraced, however, as Newsome and her friends received some pushback for posts promoting the event.

"There were situations where the post would be taken down because they were political. And it's like, how is my identity and my existence political? This has nothing to do with politics. This is about the fact that my Black skin results in very specific and unwelcoming experiences in my life," she said.

Corina Newsome banding seaside sparrows at her research site in Brunswick, GA. (Kevin Loope)

But for Newsome, this was a further sign that initiatives like these are necessary.

"Movements like this push these stories, and these perspectives, and these concerns to the forefront, and especially using social media, which is such a powerful platform for spreading someone's message," she said. 

Birding as a celebration of diversity

Newsome did all of this advocacy work on top of a busy field work season, studying predators who attack the nesting sites of the MacGillivray's seaside sparrow in the salt marshes of Southern Georgia. 

The sparrows live in a tidal environment, which means when water levels rise, their nests can get flooded out and their offspring can die. Nest flooding events are expected to increase because of climate change, which has the birds building their nests higher in the grass.

"The problem with that is that the higher they place their nest in the grass, the more visible they are to nest predators," said Newsome. "They are caught between a rock and a hard place."

Even though she was mainly watching one species of bird, she was able to find time to explore and do some birding of her own.

"Randomly I would have dozens of roseate spoonbills and great egrets and little blue herons and green herons, all kinds of birds flying over me, flying out of the marsh," she said.

For Newsome, celebrating diversity is a natural extension of her love of birding.

"The entire premise of birding is a celebration of diversity. It's a celebration of the 10,000 or more bird species that exist on the planet…," she said. "But unfortunately, when it comes to people who bird, that same diversity is not pursued, and oftentimes it's not even thought of as an issue when it's lacking."

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz