This post is part of an ongoing series called “Whose Nature? Race and Canadian Environmental History.” This series examines the intersections of race and environment in Canada’s past and asks how human-nature relations are affected by ideas of race and racism.
What happens when eBird and race sit down for a chat? As it turns out, quite a lot. EBird is the largest birdwatching community in the world, and it is a free online service largely run by volunteers. It is a stellar example of citizen science, where ordinary people collect and share information which scientists then use to better understand the world (Cooper, et al 2014; McCaffrey, 2005; Sullivan, et al 2014).
The eBird website notes that some 100 million bird sightings are added each year, and the number of sightings increases annually. The website is available in 27 languages. It is easy to use as all one needs is a phone or computer and internet access.
I use eBird to browse bird sightings and migrations in my area. Today I used it to see if race colours where birding knowledge is collected and who does the collecting. It fits my larger research interest in how race intersects with outdoor recreation and the broader environmentalism.
Who is on eBird?
The eBird website is searchable in multiple ways. I looked at the number of birdwatchers in each continent, in December 2020. For example, there were some 500,000 birders in North America, 40,000 in Europe and 12,000 in Africa. North Americans dominate birdwatching on the eBird website.
Next, I searched the Top 100 eBirders lists in a few geographic areas. In North America the list was dominated by people with first names such as John, Chris and Mary. The surnames too had a distinct ethnic flavour. Names and race don’t always have a tight correlation; however, they can still indicate a possible coupling. In North America some 90 per cent of the Top 100 birders on eBird appear to be white. It is the same racial group on the list of the Top 100 eBirders in Canada.
The Top 100 eBirders in Africa list was dominated by people with first names such as Peter, Barry, and Rita. The surnames had a similar ethnic flavour. Thus, it appears that in Africa some 90 per cent of the top birders on eBird also seems to be white. Next I looked at the Top 100 eBirders in the Caribbean (or West Indies as eBird calls the region). Among the James and Keith there was also Jose and Alvaro. In combination with the surname, some 90 per cent of the Top 100 eBirders in the Caribbean appear to be white.
One would expect white people to dominate eBird in North America and Europe, based on the composition of their populations. Birdwatching is a racialized recreational activity in North America, where some 90 per cent of participants are white (Cashman-Brown, 2012; Eubanks Jr, et al, 2004; Robinson, 2005). However, white people also dominate eBird in places where they are a fleeting fraction of the local population.
There are a number of possible explanations for the white dominance on eBird. First, eBird appeals to birding tourists and tourism operators, who travel the world to add to their checklists. These tourists are more likely to be white since they have the resources for the expensive avian-tourism (Steven, et al, 2015). Once in their exotic locations, white birders bird, while brown and Black local guides show them where to find the birds and help them with identification (Jacobs, 2016). It is a continuation of the colonial pattern of ornithology and its quest to classify every bird on Earth (Greer, 2008; Travis, 2007). In the old days the white people got the credit in the birding books, field guides and scientific journals (Weidensaul, 2008). Today, it’s the same white people who get the credit and bragging rights on eBird.
As avi-tourism depends on the expert knowledge of local Black and brown birders, why aren’t they on eBird? Access to technology might be a barrier when one has to pay steep prices for the internet. Putting a sighting or checklist on eBird might not be a priority when it costs to do so. Outreach and subsidizing internet access might encourage birders in poor countries to contribute to eBird. This would not only make birding more democratic, it would also be a step in closing the significant gap in data from these under-represented regions (La Sorte, & Somveille, 2020).
It is also one way of creating a bridge between ornithology and social justice, as well as challenging the white gaze and norm in birding. Similar to other outdoor recreation activities, birding continues to be seen as a white activity, done by white people in settings where Black people are seen as out of place (Finney, 2014; Lanham, 2016). However, tired of feeling excluded from birding clubs, Black birders are forming their own clubs and online communities (CBC, 2020; Scott, 2020). They are organizing around hashtags such as #BlackBirders, #BlackInNature and #BlackBirdersWeek. Black birders were galvanized by the threats of race-based violence towards Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher in Central Park, New York City. Cooper’s attempt to add more birds to his lifelist could have left him lifeless.
To some birds, the entire globe is their backyard. These champions of annual migrations show the futility of trying to conserve birds only within the borders of one’s own nation. For instance, the Red Knot flies some 15,000 kilometres each year from the coast of Chile and Argentina to the Canadian Arctic. The Northern Wheatears winters in southern Africa and then flies some 14,500 kilometres on its annual migration to Canada, northern Asia and Europe. Engaging with local birdwatchers in Africa and the Caribbean, and with Black birders in the African diaspora can fill important lacunae in birding knowledge. As bird flyways cross human borders internationally, and multiple communities locally, the birds lose when they encounter any barriers along any section of their ancient migration route. Ultimately we humans lose too; doom is a silent spring.