The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People called police on this black birdwatcher so many times that he posted custom signs to explain his hobby

Artist Walter Kitundu holds a sharp-shinned hawk while banding birds with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in California's Marin Headlands. (Courtesy of Walter Kitundu)
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Late last month, a video of a white woman calling police to report what she described as “an African American man threatening my life” in Manhattan’s Central Park went viral. The man’s alleged crime? Christian Cooper, who was at the park to watch birds, asked the woman to leash her dog, in accordance with the law.

But if this example of a white person unjustly calling police on a black person shocked millions of people who viewed it, it didn’t shock Cooper. “I don’t think there’s an African American person in America who hasn’t experienced something like this at some point,” Cooper, a 57-year-old science editor, told The Washington Post after the incident.

And it didn’t shock other black birders, scientists and naturalists. This week — as protests swelled nationwide over the deadly arrest of George Floyd and police violence — hundreds of them have taken to Twitter to describe their own experiences in the outdoors. They’re calling the event #BlackBirdersWeek.

“For far too long, black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities are not for us,” Corina Newsome, a co-organizer and researcher who studies seaside sparrows at Georgia Southern University, said in a video announcing the event. “Well, we’ve decided to change that narrative.”

While the effort, which has included five days of virtual events, has created a space for black people to express their love for the outdoors, it’s also provided a platform for sharing painful stories. Jason Ward, host of the show “Birds of North America,” tweeted that he has worried his black binoculars might be confused for a gun. Nature photographers Ricky Jones and Dudley Edmondson commiserated, saying that when they’re outdoors, white people actively try to avoid them.

A number of striking tweets have come from Walter Kitundu, a 46-year-old artist who has a remarkable resume: recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, Carnegie Hall performer, inventor of futuristic instruments called Phonoharps — and accomplished birder. And as he shared via #BlackBirdersWeek, it’s that last activity that has brought him into conflict with his community and law enforcement on several occasions. Kitundu, who lives in the Chicago area, spoke with The Washington Post about some of these experiences.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Who or what sparked your interest in birding?

A: I think that credit goes to my grandmother for giving me a book on birds when I was about 6 or 7 years old. … It was always of interest to me as a kid. It traveled with me wherever I went, I was always aware of where it was, but it wasn’t necessarily a passion.

Much later on in life, I had a residency in Iceland, and I borrowed a friend’s camera to document that trip. And when I returned to San Francisco, I was an artist-in-residence at the Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts. I would take my breaks outside by the lagoon. And I still had that camera, so I began to photograph the gulls on the water to see if I could freeze their wings to see those shapes.

At that exact moment, a friend of mine gave me a book on birds of Northern California. And this long-dormant interest just sort of sprang back to life, and I've been photographing birds and spending time in the wild documenting their lives and behavior ever since.

Q: In 2005, you spent a lot of time following a single hawk, which you named Patch, and you tweeted that your recurring presence resulted in more than a few run-ins with the police. So many, you eventually hung up mock public service announcements announcing your presence to the communities you bird in. Can you tell me your thought process and making it?

A: I would actually call it a PSA instead of a mock-PSA, because it was necessary. I needed people to know, in terms of trying to secure my safety as I photographed the birds. I think as a black person, as a person of color in this country, every time you walk out the door, there’s always calculus running in the background about how to present, how to keep yourself safe. It’s a muscle that’s well exercised by people of color in this country. I can’t really think of anything more wholesome than standing under a tree and watching a hummingbird build her nest, but I think if our activities fall outside of the framework of possibility that’s established for us by the white imagination, then we’re at risk.

I didn't have dog. I didn't have a partner. I didn't have a stroller. I didn't really fit into the generalized idea of who the park was for. And I was black in an affluent neighborhood. And I was being still for long periods of time. I feel like the white people in the park who called the police were owners of limited imaginations that were stunted by racism. Because I think if I had been a white person in the park with my camera, I would have been given credit that I knew something that they didn't or I must have had a good reason for being there.

I got pulled over by the police from a hummingbird bush once. I got stopped by police on two other occasions walking through the park. And then one person had the audacity to call the police on me within earshot. I could hear him describing me to the police, and I turned around and I said to him, “Can I help you?” And he said, “The police will take care of you.” So after that incident, that's when I went home and made that sign.

Q: Did you notice an effect?

A: Interestingly enough, what happened was I became the bird guy — kind of a neighborhood persona. And so I’d get, like, a free coffee at the coffee shop because people recognized me as a bird guy. But another interesting phenomenon happened where people who would never approach me and talk to me before would walk up to me and talk to me about the weather, or just make any sort of slight conversation. And then when they walked away, you could kind of feel them thinking like, ‘That poster was not about me.’ Like they’d done their duty.

It felt much better in the park for a couple of months. And then, after the hawk moved around during migration season and returned the following spring, I returned to the park and the same attitudes and tensions were present.

I would never try to insinuate that people of color should have to announce themselves or justify their presence in any way. Like I said, this is one of the most wholesome things you can do — to step outside and look at nature and to be a part of it and walk through it. And to have that be suspect, I think it's just like I said, it's a failure of imagination. And it's basically racism.

Q: You’ve been photographing birds for years. You’ve created an e-book with those pictures, as well as art installations that are avian-focused. What is it about birds or the experience of observing them that drives you?

A: It gives me peace to be out in nature, to be observing, and I’m a student of it. Some birders will try to see as many birds as possible. My goal or my practice is generally to spend a lot of time with the same bird to learn about its behavior. And so as a result, I’ve learned a lot from them. If you can move into an environment and watch one bird, it will show you everything else significant going on in the environment over a period of time. Because like I always say, birds are the best birdwatchers. I mean, they have to be because their survival depends on it. So if you pay attention to them carefully, they teach you about the environment, about the landscape and you can really deepen your insights into it.

Q: What has Black Birders Week meant to you?

A: Birdwatching and bird photography are often very solitary activities. Even when you’re in a group, you know, as a person of color, they can still be solitary activities. One of the highlights of Black Birders Week is that many of us have become visible in a way that wasn’t possible before. I feel a greatly expanded sense of community. And I know that a lot of these folks have very similar stories to tell. And so there’s a kind of shared understanding that now exists through hundreds of people, whereas before, it really did feel like you were doing the sort of work in isolation. … I’m really grateful to the organizers for putting this together, because people had to step up and act after the incident in Central Park, and they recognized that this was necessary.

Q: What would you like to say to the next generation of black birders about where we go from here? Or is it the white birders, joggers and dog-walkers we should be addressing instead?

A: [White people] have a lot of work to do, but I don’t think it’s fair for them to draw energy or resources from people of color at this point. There’s enough that’s been written. There’s enough for them to look up.

A lot of organizations and institutions talk about outreach and trying to figure out how to increase their numbers and get more people [of color] interested. It really isn't about that. It’s about addressing the nature of those organizations, not bringing people into a space that is still riddled with the same issues and toxicity. You have to change the space. Because otherwise you're inviting people to contend with all of those issues.

And if you think about all the people that were pushed out of academia or never entered these fields, because of these pressures. … It is a great loss. A loss to the fields. A loss to those institutions and to the world. We won’t know the knowledge and perspectives that could have shaped the future of those institutions and the people who might now be in positions of leadership if not for the legacy and tenacity of racism in this country. I’m hopeful that if the awakenings people have been claiming to have, due to both Black Birders Week and the larger cultural moment, are sustained, and acted upon, we could see meaningful cultural and structural change.