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Amy Cooper in Central Park exposed the danger of birding while Black. But I've always known it.

There is a peril that Black and Brown citizens face even when we are doing something as banal as watching a woodpecker peck.
Image: Sandra Guzman
Sandra Guzman on the banks of the Squamscott River in Exeter, New Hampshire, in May.Courtesy Sandra Guzman

I am a bird nerd. There is nothing more thrilling for me than to spot a cardinal perching on a maple tree singing his little heart out or seeing and hearing the dazzling buzz of an emerald hummingbird gracefully breakfasting on noni flowers.

Bird-watching became a surprising new passion six years ago when I moved to New Hampshire after two decades in New York City. Now surrounded by abundant nature — and copious bird life — I feel as if I am back to my childhood roots in the Caribbean.

As an indigenous and Black woman who birdwatches in a mostly white region of the country, the stakes for me are high. I know what happens to Black people in the woods.

I have hiked in some of the most spectacular bird sanctuaries in the Granite State and seen some of the most beautiful sites — a forest floor replete with violets, ferns, wild lilies of the valley and lady-slippers; stunning female kingfishers and bluebirds perched on pine and old oak tree branches living their best lives. But as blissful as I have felt walking New England’s majestic forests and reserves, listening to the songs of chickadees and peewees and spotting the gorgeous red of scarlet tanagers, I never forget the body I myself walk in: I am a Brown woman birding in a white state.

As an indigenous and Black woman who bird-watches in a mostly white region of the country, the stakes for me are high. I know what happens to Black people in the woods — there is an ugly history of stereotypes, burnings and lynching that is never far from my consciousness. There is a peril that I and fellow Black and Brown citizens face even when we are doing something as banal as watching a woodpecker peck, a danger that makes clear that not every citizen is treated equally when using public lands.

When I heard the story of Christian Cooper, a Black birder in Central Park who asked a white woman to leash her dog and instead had the cops called on him, with her lying that her life was in danger, I was immediately transported to the moment last year when I was racially profiled while birding in a Massachusetts state park.

Though my brush with police officers was less dramatic than the incident in Central Park — I was not arrested or threatened, and I wasn't deeply traumatized by it — the attempt to dehumanize me was the same. And my body remembers. Even when I am in a peaceful meadow, the memories embedded in my DNA of a violent past and present perpetrated against Black and Brown people keeps me alert. It’s like sleeping with one eye open and one eye closed — I can never completely surrender in the woods.

Last May, a friend who introduced me to the joys of birding invited me to join him on a visit to Maudslay State Park, a stunning reserve near the New Hampshire border. Before it became public, the land — blessed with rolling meadows, wild mountain laurels, towering pines, gardens and plantings and a beautiful river that snakes through it — was owned by a wealthy industrialist. Some private homes are now scattered throughout the 483-acre property.

My friend, an experienced birder who visits the area often, was pointing to a rare sight, a nest with a family of woodpeckers. We closed in. Across the way, I noticed a white woman peeking out from the window of a small house. She took a good look at me and concluded that I didn’t belong on these gorgeous public lands. She did what Amy Cooper did to Christian Cooper (no relation): She used her white privilege and called the cops on me. A few minutes later, a police car with flashing lights was making its way down the gravel road in our direction.

What was unsettling (and also annoying) was immediately knowing the cops were coming for me, to check me out, for watching woodpeckers peck! I made the connection right away because I saw the disturbed look on the white woman’s face: a look you know only if you have been the target; a look that says, “You don't belong here”; a look of disgust, of scorn; a look of entitlement — a look of madness, really.

The cops drove their car through the sanctuary’s roads, disturbing the peacefulness of the morning. They slowed down and got so close I could feel the heat of the vehicle. They checked me out, menacingly, and drove away, apparently concluding that the binoculars I carried were not a gun.

Though they didn’t stop or get out or ask me for my papers, I was ready. I always carry my passport when I bird. In fact, my passport is with me at all times because although I am an American-born citizen and, as James Baldwin reminded me, my crown has been bought and paid for — my father lost three fingers fighting in the Korean War to return to a nation that called him a spic, my grandmother always suspected she was one of the Puerto Rican women used as a medical guinea pig by U.S. pharma when it created the contraceptive pill, and more — my Brown body has been deemed the other and deportation is never out of the equation.

A female woodpecker with food in her beak for the hungry birds who nest in a pine trunk.Harald Lange / ullstein bild via Getty Images

I protect myself from racist evil by carrying my passport and also knowing full well that I am morally superior to racists. I don’t try to explain my humanity and sense of belonging — I know I belong here. My ancestors have been in the hemisphere for thousands of years. I am part of the Amerindian people — I am Ineri. But racists don’t care about lineage or devotion to the land. As far as they are concerned, this is their land and they own it, patrol it, even if they are not law enforcement, while law enforcement itself has historically aided this false sense of white ownership.

My birding buddy — a white, male retired English teacher — was shocked. In all the years he’d been birding, in all the times he'd come to this favorite spot, he’d never seen local cops enter the reserve. To be fair, he never birded with a Puerto Rican in the reserve. But that someone would call the cops on us (me) was deeply disturbing to him, and it placed him directly in what perhaps he had not experienced up close and personal before: how white privilege works, the lunacy of racism and their deleterious effects on white people. He got a peek into what life is like for me, a Brown woman living in a predominantly white state.

Being racially profiled while birding has not soured me from birding, but I’ve never gone back to that sweet spot in Massachusetts. No desire. I don't want to expose myself again to the hate living and thriving in the rolling meadows of the tranquil park. Being a Brown birder, I’ve learned the rules are different for me. I am not paranoid, and I certainly am not on the lookout for racists. What I do look out for are the many glorious birds that share their grace with me. But I do take precautions — my indigenous momma raised no fool.

I don’t go birding by myself. Ever. That fact is irritating. I should be able to go birding alone to the woods, without the fear of being jailed or killed.

I don’t go birding by myself. Ever. That fact is irritating. I should be able to go birding alone to the woods, without the fear of being jailed or killed. White birders don’t have the same worries. Usually, the quality of white birder joy — and white life in general — is not spoiled by the soundtrack of racism; they are free of the possibility of being arrested or killed by officers who mistake their thrill at the sight of a rare warbler for some nefarious activity. Their binoculars are not confused with guns. They are able to enjoy public lands that belong to all, free of the threat of harassment and dehumanization, arrest or even death.

When I do step out into the streets of my small town, I am extra careful that I don’t stand too close to anyone’s house — I don’t want to get the cops called for admiring a bluebird perching on a white picket fence. I am not alone in longing for a more just world — where no matter who you are you have access to the big and small pleasures of life, like walking in a forest and reveling in bird songs without the threat of white supremacy around my neck. If the blessed birds don’t care what color I am, neither should anyone else.