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Harvard ornithologist pedals cross-country for #BlackBirdersWeek

Scott Edwards took off from Newburyport on June 6.
Scott Edwards took off from Newburyport on June 6.James Deshler

On a recent afternoon in Henry, Ill., Scott Edwards took a break from cycling to answer the phone.

Edwards, professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Curator of Ornithology in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, is riding unassisted (that means no van carrying gear) across the entire country to raise awareness for Black Lives Matter and #BlackBirdersWeek. And maybe, he hopes, to spot a yellow-headed blackbird along the way.

Initially a week of events that started May 29, #BlackBirdersWeek has grown into something that feels more like a social movement. It was organized partly in response to Black birder Christian Cooper’s racist experience in Central Park.

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It’s a movement evidently so strong and overdue, it prompted Edwards to do something he never thought he’d do: sign up for Twitter. Follow his journey via @ScottVEdwards1.

“I’ve done fieldwork all over the world, worked in remote areas, and it can be very hard as a Black person to be skulking around the bushes with binoculars and field equipment,” Edwards said over the phone. “We’re trying to tell people, don’t think negatively if you see [that]. Take it easy, and realize the world is changing.”

So Edwards’s bike is adorned with Black Lives Matter signs and aimed for the Oregon coast. The bird expert — who took off from Newburyport June 6 — shared a few more thoughts about the journey and his message.

Q. So is biking cross-country something you’ve always wanted to do?

A. I’d always wanted to go cross-country, and this spring the students at Harvard were sent home; [then] all my summer academic activities were canceled. It struck me as a good time to finally realize this idea.

Q. Where do you sleep?

A. Mostly in campgrounds. I’ll stay in the odd hotel. I’ve done a few home-stays through a site called warmshowers.org. I say, ‘I’ll pitch a tent in your yard, I don’t need to come into your house.” I understand people are nervous [about coronavirus.]

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Q. And you’re also bird-watching?

A. It’s been fun to see the changing bird-scape. It’s fascinating to see the kind of birds that inhabit cornfields and soybean [fields]. The dickcissel, a Midwestern bird, was my first indication I was moving, because you normally wouldn’t see it in Massachusetts. I saw a bald eagle the other day. Lots of indigo buntings. You can really hear the changing landscape of birds.

Q. You have Black Lives Matter posters on your bike. When did you decide to add them?

A. About three or four days into the trip. A lady who was hosting me at a home-stay asked if I’d been part of #BlackBirdersWeek on Twitter. It kind of came together that I should put some signs on my bike.

Q. What was your reaction to the incident in Central Park with birder Christian Cooper?

A. It was grotesque. It was Machiavellian. Although Chris felt a little sad he’d dismantled this woman’s life, I’m glad he exposed that, because that kind of thing shouldn’t be allowed to fester. And that’s what started #BlackBirdersWeek.

The truth is, if you’re a Black person in a neighborhood with binoculars around your neck, some people are going to wonder what you’re up to. I think the movement is just to say: Hey, people of all colors and stripes are bird-watchers. It’s not an anomaly, and the nation has got to get used to it.

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Q. When you were studying ornithology, Black birders were a minority?

A. It’s still a very white hobby or pastime, and certainly at the professional level there are very few of us out there. I’m fortunate to have had mentors along the way who encouraged me. We need more role models out there.

People ask, “Why aren’t there more African-Americans in ornithology?” Well, it’s a cycle. They don’t see anyone like themselves in the profession, therefore they don’t go into it. The profession is going to remain white unless we take bold action. People think science is this cookie-cutter thing that only white males can get into. They’ve got to realize that everyone’s perspective can contribute to science, and science needs all those perspectives.

Q. Have you seen BLM protests on your journey?

A. The only evidence of protest I’ve seen was this lone white woman in Nashua, N.H., standing at an intersection holding a placard saying: “We’ve been silent too long.” I said: Wow that’s amazing. She’s doing this by herself. She really put the fire in me to try and contribute in a small way.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. She tweets @laurendaley1.


Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@gmail.com. Follow her on Twiiter @laurendaley1.