Revelations in a Bird Course: Expanding Social Justice Awareness in Arts and Sciences Teaching

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Editor’s Note: This text is based on a talk that Jessica and Erica gave at ASLE 2021.


By Jessica Marion Barr and Erica Nol

This is the story of a surprising art-science pedagogical collaboration that occurred in the middle of the pandemic—we’re calling it “Revelations in a Bird Course.”

We teach at Trent University in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, Ontario, the territory and treaty of the Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg. Jessica, an environmental artist, is cross-appointed to Cultural Studies and Trent’s interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts and Science Program; Erica is a professor of Biology who specializes in ornithology.

A Bird Course During the Pandemic

Jessica teaches several core courses in the Bachelor of Arts and Science Program; the second-year course in this program is called “Arts and Science: Case Studies.” Following some of her Ph.D. research and personal interests, Jessica designed the course around birds; the course description explains that the class examines “socio-cultural, artistic, scientific, and technological perspectives on birds. From their significance as cultural symbols to their representation in art and popular culture to their status as indicators of climate change and ecosystem contamination, birds are vitally significant to and interconnected with humanity.” The course explores connections between birds and Indigenous knowledge, human-animal communication, mythology, aviation, extinction, literature, music with the best violin for beginners, art, and more.

“From their significance as cultural symbols to their representation in art and popular culture to their status as indicators of climate change and ecosystem contamination, birds are vitally significant to and interconnected with humanity.”

To get to know birds in our local ecosystem, we typically have a guest ornithologist who comes and takes the class on a bird watching tour early in the course.

As we all know, fall 2020 was different. The course was being offered remotely, via weekly Zoom sessions.  Jessica asked Professor Erica Nol if she could speak to the class, and Erica agreed.  What we were expecting was a talk about birdwatching and bird research, and what we got was so much more.

Avian Revelations

Erica had visited this class in 2019, and had taken the class on a field trip in the forests and fields adjacent to the university; this time, in the requisite virtual format, she decided to talk about her own experiences, especially in the previous year (2020), around how her field of ornithology actually intersects with social justice issues—which was a revelatory moment both for her as well as for the Arts and Science class.  Erica proposed to the class that birding and ornithology could actually act as gateways to social justice.

As Jessica’s course description states, birds are indicators of environmental contamination—the most famous example of course is the canary in the coal mine. At the same time, bird watching can be a healing activity, and because of their experience outdoors as well as their connection with birds, birdwatchers tend to have better mental health outcomes, and, in fact, there’s some evidence that birdwatching can actually help with addiction.

Erica’s own work has taken her to the Arctic as well as to woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands in southern temperate zones, with species such as killdeer as well as American oystercatchers. She’s also done a number of studies with her graduate students on birds in the landscape that’s been settled by Europeans in southern Ontario and all the impacts of that settlement on birds in their natural habitat. In 2021, Erica received the Miller Award for Lifetime Achievement in ornithological research. She mentions this because she recognizes that she was able to achieve this with very few barriers. In 2020 something happened that shone a particular light on this lifetime of privilege.

#AskABlackBirder

On May 25, 2020, the same day that George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Black birdwatcher Christian Cooper was targeted by dog owner Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman, who flew into a racist rage and called police when politely asked by Christian Cooper to put her dog on a leash in an on-leash area of New York’s Central Park.  This area of the park (“The Ramble”) is frequented by birdwatchers and is very sensitive to roaming dogs; indeed the literature shows that dogs are actually quite damaging to natural environments if they are off leash.

Corina Newsome,. a black woman border holds up binoculars
Corina Newsome.

This incident, coinciding as it did with Floyd’s murder, initiated a public discussion in which Black birdwatchers and naturalists began publicly sharing about their experiences in nature, the frequency of their being stopped by the police while birding or attempting to enjoy the outdoors, and the fear which non-racialized people do not associate with birdwatching or wilderness experiences. These discussions quickly led to #BlackBirdersWeek, a week of education and discussion proposed by a group of Black birders including Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman and Corina Newsome, a biology graduate student at Georgia Southern University who studies Seaside Sparrows. Newsome announced on social media:

“For far too long, Black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities are not for us[…]. Whether it be the way the media chooses to present who is the ‘outdoorsy’ type, or the racism Black people experience when we do explore the outdoors, as we saw recently in Central Park. Well, we’ve decided to change that narrative.”

Corina Newsome, Audubon, June 1, 2020

Erica shared with Jessica’s class that this (now annual) social media event highlighted and celebrated Black people in nature, and included a series of talks and discussions under Twitter hashtags such as #BlackinNature and #AskaBlackBirder.

Following the lead of #BlackBirdersWeek, Black scientists founded #BlackinGeoscience and Black in Microbiology (#BlackinMicro) as well as many other groups,  amplifying voices that have largely not been heard in STEM, and inviting more Black participation in the sciences.

Confronting and Dismantling Systemic Racism in Ornithology

Erica was struck by these events and reflected on the racial exclusion she had been noticing in her field for decades, as well as on her position of racial privilege within this system.  Black scientists have been excluded and overlooked within academia and the scientific community and have experienced barriers to attend scientific meetings.  In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black, brown, and Indigenous Americans and Canadians, as well as the phenomena of #BlackBirdersWeek, Erica and others in the scientific community understood the urgency of anti-racist work.

As Erica told the students, some work was already underway.  For example, in 2015, she was involved with The Waterbird Society, which was poised to have a meeting in North Carolina—at about the same time that the infamous Bathroom Bill in North Carolina was before the state legislature, essentially attempting to outlaw gender neutral bathrooms. In response to this issue, The Waterbirds Society began forming its diversity and inclusion committee and facilitated a discussion about racism and homophobia at its annual conference.

The American Ornithological Society has also taken steps toward anti-racism and anti-oppression, posting resources and toolkits for white people to help them talk about anti-racism, decolonizing our minds, dismantling white supremacy, and more.

In addition to increasingly respectful and progressive international collaborations that occur within ornithology (e.g., conservation research on migratory birds such as the lesser yellowlegs [Tringa flavipes], which brings together ornithologists and Indigenous knowledge holders from North and South America and the Caribbean; and work on the spoon-billed sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) whose migration along the Pacific Flyway travels from Russia, through Pacific nations to Australia), there is increasing momentum within ornithology to confront the violent colonial and white supremacist history of eponymous or honorific names for birds.

Co-founded by Jordan E. Rutter and Gabriel Foley, the grassroots organization Bird Names for Birds (#BirdNamesforBirds) states on its website that honorific names “are problematic because they perpetuate colonialism and the racism associated with it. The names that these birds currently have—for example, Bachman’s Sparrow—represent and remember people (mainly white men) who often have objectively horrible pasts and do not uphold the morals and standards the bird community should memorialize.” The organization advocates for descriptive re-naming of birds, such as the newly designated Thick-billed Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii), formerly called McCown’s Longspur after Captain John P. McCown, a defender of slavery who fought with the Union and Confederate Armies, attacking Indigenous nations along the Canadian border as well as fighting the Seminole nation in Florida; he was also a naturalist who first collected the species in 1851; in early August 2020, American Ornithological Society (AOS) announced a unanimous decision by the North American Classification Committee (NACC) to change the name, doing an about-face on a decision it had made in 2018 which rejected the proposed name change.

Thick-billed Longspur
Thick-billed Longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii). Source: Ebird.org.

There are approximately 142 North American bird species that are named after individuals, although this is changing.  The American Ornithological Society recently formed an ad hoc committee to recommend changes to “harmful English bird names,” releasing a statement that expressed their enthusiasm about “receiving their recommendations on the process for reviewing and changing English bird names to ensure ornithology and birding are as inclusive as possible.”

Even the Audubon Society must reckon with racist naming, as its namesake, John James Audubon, was himself a slave owner, slavery apologist, and white supremacist. In 2020, the Society released statements and took anti-racist initiatives; in fall 2020, former Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold wrote on the Society’s website that its members have “committed to making Audubon an antiracist institution.” He states that the Society has received:

“Overwhelming support for our antiracist commitments from Audubon members, staff, and volunteer leaders. They understand that questions of birds and conservation and questions of racial equity are not separate, though they’ve been treated that way for far too long. The artificial division between those concerns came crashing down when birder and New York City Audubon board member Christian Cooper was threatened in a racist incident in Central Park this spring, and when Black birders, scientists, and outdoor enthusiasts came together to share their stories during #BlackBirdersWeek shortly afterward.

It’s clear to us that the work Audubon does in the world—from our environmental advocacy in Washington, D.C., and state capitals, to on-the-ground conservation, to community engagement from coast to coast—must actively advance racial equity. A lift-all-boats approach is not enough and in fact often deepens existing inequities. From incorporating inclusion and equity in our staff’s goals to the creation of an equity task force within our very supportive board, our commitment runs deep. But words are only that if actions don’t follow. We expect to be held accountable.”

As the Bird Names for Birds website states, “Current events in 2020 renewed societal emphasis on social justice and have shown that the time to reevaluate is now, and are largely why this initiative formalized. We are overdue individually, as groups and communities, and as a society to reevaluate our biases, remove barriers of all kinds, and be better.”

Being Better: Intersectional Environmentalism in Practice

In her talk, Erica brought these issues to the students’ attention, naming, as a scientist, racism and white supremacy within ornithology, and explicitly discussing the importance of anti-racism in her field.  Jessica and her students found the talk powerful, surprising, and edifying.

In a written reflection on Erica’s talk, one student wrote “birds are able to bring together the disciplines of art and science in a variety of ways. Most surprising is the contribution of ornithology to social justice issues. […]The shared love of birds and the right of every individual to be able to appreciate these species has contributed to a collaboration and movement of social change.” Another student wrote that Dr Nol’s talk reminded him that “every gender and race should be equally appreciated.”  Imagine that from an ornithologist’s guest lecture!

Many Black activists and intellectuals including Ibram X. Kendi and Angela Davis have stressed that “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non racist, we must be anti racist,” and Erica’s guest lecture shows us that environmental anti-racist pedagogy is possible in both the arts and sciences.

Leah Thomas, author of “Why Every Environmentalist Should Be Anti-Racist,” and the forthcoming book The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet, created the Intersectional Environmentalist Pledge, which includes points such as:

“I will stand in solidarity with Black, Indigenous, People of Color communities, and The Planet. 

 I will not ignore the intersections of environmentalism and social justice. 

I will use my privilege to advocate for black and brown lives in spaces where this message is often silenced.”

The Intersectional Environmentalist Pledge by Leah Green

“Erica’s talk, embedded in Jessica’s avian-themed course, showed the students that anti-racism can be part of environmental education. It also importantly demonstrated that science can be a site for and of anti-racist action and dismantling white supremacy.”

Erica’s talk, embedded in Jessica’s avian-themed course, showed the students that anti-racism can be part of environmental education.  It also importantly demonstrated that science can be a site for and of anti-racist action and dismantling white supremacy.  Hearing this unexpectedly during what they imagined would be a birdwatching talk from an ornithologist seemed to make the message that much more powerful to the students.  We hope that anti-racism in environmental science and pedagogy will become less and less surprising.  This was a small moment in a “bird course,” yet it offers a hopeful opportunity to reflect on collaboration between arts and sciences, and tools for enacting intersectional environmental anti-racist pedagogy and action.

Authors’ note: We were encouraged that on October 25, 2021, The Guardian reported that “A leading US conservation group, the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS), has announced it will change its name, due to the ‘pain’ caused by the 19th-century ornithologist and slaveholder John James Audubon.

The group, which holds wildlife sanctuaries across Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland, said that it had become clear its name did not connect to its diverse set of programmes and that some members and volunteers had objected.

‘The mission and vision of the organisation have not changed,’ said Lisa Alexander, executive director of ANS. ‘The deliberate and thoughtful decision to change our name is part of our ongoing commitment to creating a larger and more diverse community of people who treasure the natural world and work to preserve it. It has become clear that this will never be fully possible with the current name.'”

Feature Image: Thick-billed Longspur.
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Jessica Marion Barr is an artist, educator, and researcher who completed her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at Queen's University in fall 2015, focusing on ecological elegies. Her interdisciplinary practice incorporates artmaking, arts-science research, and pedagogy, investigating creative and collaborative approaches to issues around climate change, species decline, and social/ecological justice. Jessica has recently exhibited artwork at the Design Annex of the Art Gallery of Hamilton; Gladstone Hotel (Toronto); World of Threads Festival (Oakville); Wall Space Gallery (Ottawa); FINA Gallery, University of British Columbia (Kelowna, BC); Hart House (University of Toronto); and Union Gallery, The Artel, Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, and the Ban Righ Centre (Kingston, ON). Jessica's 2013 Nuit Blanche (Toronto) installation project Indicator investigated the concept of indicator species and empire; the project was included in NOW Magazine's Critics' Picks as well as The Grid's "Nuit Blanche Animated" (listen to Jessica's sound installation Indications on SoundCloud). Vernal Pool: A Participatory Project about Place + Precipitation, a collaboration with artist Karen Abel, was the recipient of the 2014 Jury’s Choice Award and the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects/GROUND Award at Grow Op: Exploring Landscape and Place at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto (more on this project at https://vernal-pool.tumblr.com/).

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