Episode 151: Black Birders Week is Forever

Interview with Danielle Belleny

Sponsored by Salomon, Betterhelp, & Peak Scents

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Danielle Belleny is a wildlife biologist, member of BlackAFinSTEM collective, and co-founder of Black Birders Week, a movement created in response to the Central Park birdwatching incident. In this episode, we’ll hear from Danielle about her love of birds, her path to becoming a wildlife biologist, and the powerful force that is Black Birders Week.

Full transcript available after the photos and resources.

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Featured in this episode: Danielle Belleny

Hosted by Gale Straub

Music in this episode is by  Swelling, Meydan, & Lee Rosevere using a Creative Commons attribution license.

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Danielle in her element:

Danielle Belleny is a wildlife biologist, member of BlackAFinSTEm, and co-founder of #BlackBirdersWeek
We talk with Danielle about how her childhood love of the outdoors blossomed into a career as a wildlife biologist.

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TRANSCRIPT: 

Gale – Narration:

I’m Gale Straub and you’re listening to She Explores.

Danielle:

We’re just celebrating Black voices out in nature in general, but also showing that Black birders exist. It’s not just a hobby occupied by like older white men or something like that. So, yeah, it’s a celebration.

Gale – Narration:

This is Danielle Belleny, a wildlife biologist and member of BlackAFinSTEM, a community of Black professionals and enthusiasts in STEM fields, or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. She’s also a birder, which you’ll be able to tell I know very little about, but now want to try after hearing her enthusiasm and how easy it is to get started.

In the intro, Danielle’s talking about #BlackBirdersWeek, a social media campaign turned movement she helped co-found with BlackAFinSTEM after a racist incident on May 25th in Central Park. It was between a white woman, Amy Cooper, and Christian Cooper, a Black birder in which Amy called in a false police report against Christian after refusing to put her dog on a leash. This call wasn’t just racist, it compromised Christian’s safety, a fact that was underlined after the killing of George Floyd by police later that day.

#BlackBirdersWeek lasted from May 31 to June 5th and included Q&As and prompts for sharing photos of birds, birding, and spending time in nature as a Black person. It’s just a joy to scroll through and you’ll hear from Danielle in our conversation that it’s just the beginning of the movement.

It’s truly beautiful to see how this celebration of Black birders has grown wings and uplifted Black environmentalists, outdoorists, and others in STEM fields, but Danielle also reminds us that the campaign is a response to a racist act that is indicative of countless other harmful acts. It’s a form of protest. And that should be celebrated, too.

In this episode, we’ll hear from Danielle about her love of birds, her path to becoming a wildlife biologist, and #BlackBirdersWeek after this.

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Gale – Narration:

We’re back. I started off by asking about her early memorable interactions with nature.

Danielle:

So I was definitely always the outdoors-y child, the outdoorsy kid from like one years old and up. Um, my parents have always said like, Oh yeah, you were just picking up lizards and stuff. And there’s actually a picture of me as like a three or four years old holding this huge rat snake and just being fearless and just, you know, loving every second of it. So being outdoors is just, you know, innate for me. I’ve always had a draw to it and it’s always been a comforting experience just exploring what’s out there.

Gale:

Hmm. It sounds like your parents were encouraging as well.

Danielle:

Definitely. I freaked them out a couple of times, you know, by bringing bugs inside or like, you know, trying to rehabilitate a butterfly that I found on the ground or something, but they were, they were still supportive.

Gale:

Well, I will say I’m always impressed by people because I think they’re, you know, there’s different brains that we have and my brain is not one that remembers the names of animals or plants. I love seeing them and, you know, soaking up like the beauty aspect, but I I’ve never had that brain. So, it’s pretty cool that you do.

Danielle:

Yeah. I just recently got it actually, because growing up, I didn’t know, I didn’t know what they were called, so I would just make up names for that. And I still encourage people to do that to this day. Like if you don’t know what it’s called, I mean, feel free to make up whatever it is and then figure it out eventually.

Gale:

Yeah, cause that could be like one of those, you know, intimidations or like barriers to getting interested in something.

Danielle:

Yeah.

Gale:

When did you start to think that like the outdoors and wildlife management might be something that you would go into for a profession?

Danielle:

So that didn’t happen until I, until undergrad, I started originally as a biology major, hoping to become a veterinarian, which is, you know, something I hear pretty often and people that become wildlife biologists, like they start out doing something, realize that’s not really for them. And then they switched it up. Um, and I did just that on when I was a going into my junior year of undergrad, I decided to transfer schools and then try this new major called wildlife biology that I had really no clue what it was, but it sounded interesting. And then the first day of classes, I was like, Oh, this is definitely it. Like, this is my calling. This is what I want to do here on out. And then I got involved in like some research projects and I got exposed to research. So anytime in your life, you can definitely switch it up and change out what you do and find that new passion.

Gale:

Hmm. This might be a simplistic question, but as someone who doesn’t know, what, what does it mean to be a wildlife biologist?

Danielle:

Oh man. Hmm. I guess what does it mean to be a wildlife biologist? Man? That’s a tough question. I’ve never really thought about it besides like I’ve taken a lot of classes and like I’ve learned, I’ve learned how to like manage for species and I’ve had like this really cool hands on experience on you. Yeah. Just how to conserve and how to preserve and just have this mindset of, I’m just trying to do better for the world. So as far as like a specific thing that a wildlife biologist is classified, I mean, yeah, there’s, there’s some certifications you can get, but you don’t have to get those to be a wildlife biologist. But I would say just like research and being interested in, in natural history and how, how the world functions and trying to help it out. It’s a range of things. I mean, there’s data scientists and they can also dabble in wildlife biology and there’s people that specialize in like just squids or people that have like a whole general like, Oh, I studied grasslands. Like, yeah, there’s a bunch of different avenues to go down.

Gale:

I read that your fascination with birding started in college.

Danielle:

Yeah, it was. So that same year that I transferred to the new University of Texas A and M university Kingsville and South Texas, one of the internships that I was able to be a part of was this nest searching internship. And I basically walked around in the scrub brush of South Texas, just wandering around, looking for birds nest. And whenever I would find one, I would flag it, come back every couple of days to like check on it and see how it’s doing and record what I saw on my data sheet. Um, but yeah, being able to watch birds from go from eggs to like the little baby birds into like full on birds and a couple of days was just really fascinating. And it, it got me tied into, um, bird research and also in South Texas, it’s a really amazing migratory bird, bird route. So there’s all these beautiful colorful species coming to South Texas to get food, to fuel up, to complete their migration. So really awesome place to go birdwatching or just wildlife watching in general.

Gale:

Hmm. Well, when you first were checking on those nests, did you, did you give the birds names like you would have as a kid?

Danielle:

Wow. I know. I didn’t even think about giving them names. I would just like be really excited, like, Oh, I hope that first road runner nest I found is doing okay. I’m like, I remember them like the location, like, Oh, that nest that’s really high up in the tree that I somehow climbed and found. Um, so yeah, I never named them, but I, I definitely hold memories of the nest and specific places, even I, what is it like six years ago? Um, yeah. I, it, it holds a good, good memory in my mind.

Gale:

Oh, that’s wonderful. Um, so for someone who, who doesn’t know, what, what does it mean to bird? Because I feel like there’s sometimes these pictures that come to your mind of binoculars and sitting and waiting, you know, and then I also think about people going on trips around the world, looking for birds.

Danielle:

Yeah. So to every hobby, I mean, there’s definitely levels to it. Um, you know, however you want to bird depends, it’s up to you. So when I was a beginner, I didn’t even have binoculars. I would just look with my eyes and um, maybe I would just walk into school and I would just observe the cool birds that I had around me. You don’t have to like have a formal time to go birds pop out of your window or are just like next to you when you’re sitting out of the airport. You can go birding at anytime, anywhere.

Gale:

I mean, I love that. So first I just want to say, I love that because a big part of this podcast too, is the fact that like going outside there’s even this connotation or this like narrative that it has to be like summiting a mountain or doing like this, like quote unquote “Epic: thing. And I think that we drive so much pleasure out of these everyday interactions that we have with nature. And if we make a really big deal out of some of these like grander summits and things, it means that we don’t necessarily get the same benefit in our everyday life. And we also don’t want to think about it as something that we are interacting with, which makes us less likely to want to like protect those places or value city parks or, you know, so I really appreciate that lens of looking at birding as well, because you might just get intimidated and never want to start. And then you don’t get that benefit.

Danielle:

Yeah. Plenty of people don’t even know that they’ve started yet. Like, Oh, you’ve been watching… If you just look at a bird, you, you are birding. Like you’re in it. Just dive deeper into it if you want.

Gale:

So, so what role does it play in your life today?

Danielle:

It’s very therapeutic. I mean, last week I didn’t really get a chance to go birding much because I was busy, but this morning I had the first chance to go birding in a long time. I just felt this relief and this relaxation just come over me. And, um, I took my mom out birding with me too, because I just want to share how fun it is and how relaxing it is to be able to go out there and do it. So it’s just a way to recenter myself and just, you know, just take a closer look at the, at the normal things that are around us. The things that we think are usual, but you know, there’s, they’re, they’re having their own little interesting lives. There’s little cities that are around us in nature.

Gale:

Was that your first, the first time that you took your mom out birding today?

Danielle:

I’m pretty sure I’ve taken her out before, but we went with a specific mission of going to see a painted bunting, which is my favorite bird. And it’s so pretty and so colorful. And it just reminds me so much of Texas and it makes me extremely happy every time I see it. And I want to share that with every single person I can. So I took mom out to, uh, down to the Creek near our house and I saw a couple of them, but she, she saw half, half of a bunting this morning, but I still count that as a success. She saw some of the really gorgeous, bright colors, like the red and the blue on that bird. Um, so yeah, it was a good time.

Gale:

How does she only see half? Was it like obscured or something?

Danielle:

Yeah, they were moving pretty fast and it was obscured by some tree branches also. So she didn’t get a perfect look, but we’ll get a chance to go out again soon.

Gale:

Hmm. I love that you have a favorite bird. I wonder if everyone does, like, once you start thinking about it.

Danielle:

It’s hard to figure out like, what is your favorite bird? Cause there’s like, okay, do you want to do like a cool behavior or like a pretty bird? Or like, it’s, it’s tough to decide. So I have to regionalize my favorite bird.

Gale:

It’s nice to have, um, a bird that feels like home too. That’s probably why we have state birds.

Danielle:

Oh yeah. Duh.

*Laughter*

Gale:

So one thing that I think I heard you saying in an interview I listened to you do was that birds are maybe surprisingly important to study because they are indicators of the health of our ecosystem. Would you be able to share a little bit about that?

Danielle:

Sure. So the bird that I studied for my masters thesis project and at Tarleton State University focused on Northern Bob white and they’re a really good indicator species. And what I mean by indicator species is if that bird is able to be present and have nest and have babies and survive like a full year, they’re able to do that pretty well. Then you can assess the health of that environment. If Bob white are present, you have a pretty healthy grassland. If they are declining and they’re not able to sustain their populations, then there might be something going on in those grasslands that is inhibiting their protection and inhibiting their growth. Um, but if that is the case for the Bob whites, then that’s also the case for their food like bugs and spiders, and a bunch of other animals rely on those bugs and spiders too. So if the Bob white aren’t able to get their food, then that means a bunch of other species aren’t able to get their food. And a lot of things also eat Bob white too. So there’s this cascading effect. And we can look at birds as like this Canary in a coal mine, if something is going wrong and the birds are showing that through their populations or through their actions, then we might need to assess the health and, you know, make up a management plan or figure out a way to fix that issue.

Gale:

Hmm. It’s hard not to like, think about some of the parallels of what you, what you just said in terms of, if there’s an issue here, there’s an issue there. And I just think about like, we all have it, the issues structurally that we have within the United States that people want to think aren’t connected, but are so anyway, that’s just a thought that popped into my mind when you said that,

Danielle:

Oh yeah. Beyond the scope of just nature. Absolutely.

Gale – Narration:

We’ll get to hear about the start of BLACKAFinSTEM and hashtag Black Birders Week after this.

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Chelsea Murphy:

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Gale – Narration:

We’re back. Danielle shared with me the importance of BlackAFinSTEM in her career.

Gale:

Is it Black AF in STEM? What’s the best way to

Danielle:

Just, you know, to make it friendly for everybody. But yes, BlackAFinSTEM and I got involved, I think about a year and a half ago, I have a fuzzy memory, but, um, Jason Ward, he’s a, um, really amazing birder in Atlanta, Georgia. And he also has that great YouTube show on birds in North America. What Jason Ward, he started our group chat about a year ago and it was just a place for Black scientists to hang out. And we were just texting, you know, for about a year and stuff. And, um, some people were able to meet up and build like actual in real life friendships. Um, I’ve only met one person from our group, but yeah, about a year ago I was able to get involved and find a community in that Black sciences, uh, group chat.

Gale:

Oh, that’s awesome. I’ve read some articles where people have talked about some of the isolation that Black scientists or other people in the STEM fields feel, but there are obviously like you see the growth of BlackAFin STEM. There are a lot of people out there. Um, it’s just a matter of getting together and also amplifying that work.

Danielle:

Absolutely. And I used to feel really alone in my field because I didn’t see a lot of people like me. I didn’t have a lot of community around me. And I actually thought about changing my majors or like changing my job field completely because I wanted that sense of belonging, um, that I didn’t necessarily have. And until the, uh, the BlackAF group chat came in, I really didn’t know what to do. But since then I have like friends that I can go to and people that I can not relate to a lot easier. And it’s definitely changed my viewpoint on what it means to be a Black scientist and belong.

Gale – Narration:

Danielle shouldn’t have to choose between her career, passion and belonging. A 2018 report from Thomas says that just 9% of STEM workers in the U S are Black and Black women represent just 2.9% of STEM grads. Organizations like BlackAFinSTEM will help grow these numbers. Black Birders Week has been a catalyst for change too.

Danielle:

One of our group chat members Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman, she was able to, um, she’s first of all, she’s an economist. She’s not even like a birder or like an outdoorsy person that much. She heard us talking about our experiences being Black birders after the, um, the racist incident with Chris Cooper and Amy Cooper in central park. After we shared some of our stories on Twitter, Anna came to the group was like, we should make like a, a think out of this. We should call it Black birders week and have some really cool events that highlight Black people in nature. So us with our biological interests and our birding backgrounds, plus Anna’s really amazing marketing skills. We were able to make Black Birdrs Week come about. So we’re just celebrating Black voices out in nature in general, but also showing that Black birders exist. It’s not just a hobby occupied by like older white men or something like that. So yeah, it’s a celebration.

Gale:

Hmm. That’s great. And there’s also, there’s the celebration. And then there’s the representation in that, like, you know, you don’t want to do it for people to understand that you’re out there, but like there’s a level of almost safety in numbers because you don’t want more interactions. Like what happened with Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper to continue.

Danielle:

Yeah, exactly. That like that, that, that situation could have happened to any of us in the group chat. And, you know, a lot of us have had experiences where people have called the cops on us while we are doing our jobs. Um, so yeah, again, just bringing to light that racist incidents happened to Black biologists all the time, and we just need people to be more aware and actually actively anti-racist to help us be safe in our, in our fields and safe when we recreate.

Gale – Narration:

Anti-racism is lifelong work. But Danielle generously shared tips for non-Black birders and outdoorists to avoid microaggressions and just be more welcoming in the outdoors.

Danielle:

I would say for people that are on trails that maybe see like, uh, I mean, a smile goes a long way. If you are, if you see someone on a trail, you know, at least pop a smile every now and then it makes people feel a lot more welcome in spaces. Yeah. Just don’t stare at people, get on your way. Maybe even ask like, Oh, are you looking at anything, anything interesting. And then you’ll be barraged by a bunch of fun facts to again, build, build community with your neighbors. If you see someone on a hike, you know, does express interest and express compassion and what they’re, what they’re doing.

Gale:

Yeah. And I guess it just, it just kinda sucks that like, it feels like those should be obvious tips, right.

Danielle:

It really is. And also if someone asks you a question, so personally, I, when I go birding, sometimes I try to avoid, you know, other groups of birders because they can be kind of, but I mean, that’s just the personal interactions that I’ve had. But if you are in one of those groups of people, like, you know, just be welcoming to people that come up to your group and ask you, Oh, what are you looking at? What are you doing? Yeah. People will just mean are being genuine. So just return some genuine kindness back .

Gale – Narration:

Each day of Black Birders Week had a different call to action on social media or a panel to tune into. The last day was #BlackWomenWhoBird.

Danielle:

I feel like Black women are often overlooked in the accomplishments and the things that they do. Again, going certainly back to the idea that, you know, birding is just like a, an older white man hobby. It’s plainly not true. There are plenty of Black women who are interested in these hobbies and interested in exploring nature like this. And if one’s like another level of community, like share being a Black birder is great. And also being a Black woman is like another step of community that we are here together. We’re here for each other and we want, we want more Black women to come out and bird with us.

Gale:

Hmm. I will say I have, I love art. My mom’s an artist. And I just, I love like illustrations. And it’s been really beautiful to see a lot of the art that has come out of this past week. And then especially, I love seeing the Black women who bird art. I don’t know if you got to see any of it.

Danielle:

I have, and I get emotional thinking about it every single time. It’s like people took the time to make art for us, art of us. And, Oh my gosh. It’s so it’s so beautiful. It makes me smile so hard every time I think about it.

Gale:

You think about all those colors on the, on the bunting, that kind of being mirrored in the, the beautiful artwork too.

Danielle:

Oh my gosh. That’s such a beautiful statement. Yes.

Gale:

What, what did this past week in terms of Black Birders Week mean for you personally?

Danielle:

It was definitely a form of protest. Um, you know, we are definitely standing with Black Lives Matter, and we want to bring to attention that the deaths of Amaud Arbery or Brianna Taylor or George Floyd, we’re, we’re doing this week for them also, it’s not just for the birders and the outdoor naturalists, but for some of us who might not be able to go out and protest in the streets, this is one of the ways that we are able to voice our, put our voices out there and stand with our Black community and allies in order for us to, um, make political change. Um, Black birders week is not just a week. Black Birders Week is forever. Black Birders Week is our lives.

Gale:

What was the conversation like within the community at BlackAFinSTEM, um, in putting a call out to the outdoor industry for, for some change that you’d like to see?

Danielle:

Yeah, we definitely want, we want our faces to be seen when our voices be heard. Um, if you look at like a catalog for outdoor recreation stuff, you don’t really see that many Black faces. I mean, plenty of us are out here. Why aren’t we getting that representation that we want and need? Um, it’s kind of hard to explain what you do and why you do to a group of friends that doesn’t understand your job, but then when you try to show them what your job is and all you have are pictures of people that don’t look like you, it’s kind of hard for them to, you know, embrace that a little bit more. So if we’re able to see ourselves in ads and in media, then, then we’ll have more diversity in those areas. We create a welcoming space. Um, the more people will definitely flock towards those things.

Gale – Narration:

What Danielle had to say next echoes what I’ve heard from many in the outdoor space.

Danielle:

Um, I’ve definitely seen companies make statements that they’re standing with Black lives, and they’re also, um, they’re also in support of the protests that are happening for, um, Brionna Taylor and Arbery. Again, all those names that I’ve, I’ve mentioned, but many other, other Black lives. So it, it does, it does provide me reassurance. Um, I think now we just have to wait for their actions. I’m sure it’s great to post a statement. I really do appreciate that, but I would like to see, you know, what other steps they’re taking to fulfill their, their statements,

Gale – Narration:

BlackAFinSTEM and the inaugural Black Birders Week is only going to continue reaching more people. The campaign was featured by really big media outlets like CNN, National Geographic, Scientific American, and NPR — among others. It’s already led to action and response. The National Wildlife Federation plans to dedicate part of their conservation fellowship and intern programs to young biologists of color. There’s a lot of possibility in this so long as we’re all dedicated to continuing to support and uplift Black folks in STEM and beyond. With so many unknowns, I wanted to ask Danielle about what she’s looking forward to in the outdoors.

Gale:

One more like relatively simple question for you. And that’s, if you have any outdoor outings that you’re looking forward to right now, I know you just went out this morning, but we’d love to hear…

Danielle:

Well, probably this afternoon or this afternoon, I’m in Texas. So once it hits like 10:00 AM, I can’t go outside anymore because it’s 99 degrees or hotter. So, um, I would say yeah, in the afternoons or early morning, but I really want to go back to South Texas and go to the lower Rio Grande Valley and go burning there. I haven’t been burning there since I’d been like a quote unquote, proper birder, like with binoculars and stuff since undergrad. So I want to go back very soon, as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Gale – Narration:

Danielle wants to leave us with one last piece of advice.

Danielle:

Keep doing what you do. Don’t listen to the people that tell you negative things. I mean, you know how you do and you know how they do. So, you know, just carry yourself. You got this.

 

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