For many, the name “Malheur National Wildlife Refuge” is synonymous with the illegal 2016 occupation carried out by a group of gun-toting, far-right extremists, Portland resident Trisha Kumar’s associations are a lot more pleasant – and avian.
“There was a Ferruginous hawk nest on top of this big tree,” Kumar said. “There were three not quite fledglings, and the two parents that were flying around and feeding all the babies at sunset. We sat and watched those five birds for a good hour and a half, until it got too cold.”
Kumar was part of an annual trip to the refuge organized by Birdhers, a birding group that promotes inclusivity in what is often called one of America’s most popular pastimes.
“It’s not gatekeep-y,” Kumar said of Birdhers.
“It’s a really approachable community, there’s people of all different levels, so there’s a lot to be learned and a lot of people learning alongside you, which is really wonderful. It’s a way to get out in nature year-round and have a goal beyond just hiking up to the top of a mountain.”
The group returns to Malheur this weekend.
Birdhers was founded five years ago by Han Lyons, who has held weekly Saturday walks ever since.
“It’s a community space that I just feel so safe in,” Birdhers member Marti Clemmons, an archives technician at PSU, told The Skanner. “For me, as a single parent, and I identify as non-binary and trans – my mental health is not the greatest. This space and being in nature, for anyone, is so important. To be present, together with my community, who I believe have my back – it’s just been a very good experience.”
“I think that Birdhers in particular has been a huge, huge part of maintaining my mental health and sanity over the last year,” she said. “I’m somebody who talks a lot and is always thinking about and doing so many different things. Birding gets me out into nature at any point in the year, and it is one of the only times when I really feel like I can be quiet and focus on one thing, because I’m listening for birds and looking for things. It’s just truly wonderful.”
“The idea that a typical birder is white, hetero, cis(gendered) – that’s dominated the practice,” Clemmons said.
“I didn’t say I didn’t feel welcome (in those groups), but it definitely is a different vibe. There can be mansplaining for sure.”
In Birdhers, everyone, from the novice to the expert, is welcome. And ornithology is not the only area of knowledge that comes in handy, Clemmons said, pointing out that one participant has a background in identifying mushrooms. Clemmons has a passion for history the group recently translated into the Force Lake birdwatching and historical walking tour in Vanport, in collaboration with the nonprofit Vanport Mosaic for its annual festival this month.
Along the way, the group spotted a great blue heron, red-tailed hawk, Bewick’s wren, brown-headed cowbird and Northern flicker – just to name a few.
“Force Lake was there when Vanport was there, as a recreational outlet for the residents of Vanport,” Clemmons said. “Today it’s a successful birding spot. Han and I did the walk together and just contextualized the space where history and nature met. We made this connection together that this past and present can really help us understand our surroundings and our history of Portland.”
For such a wholesome hobby, there has been intense racial controversy within the birding community in recent years.
The Audubon Society, named for naturalist John James Audubon, has had its own recent reckoning with its problematic namesake: Though the group makes no secret of Audubon’s practice of buying and selling slaves, and his opposition to emancipation, its board of directors voted non-unanimously in March against a name-change.
In 2020, Black birder Christian Cooper had a now infamous encounter with a white woman who threatened to call and lie to the police about him after Cooper had asked the woman to leash her dog in a protected area of New York’s Central Park – in accordance with park rules. The incident brought to light issues of safety and exclusion that birders of color continue to grapple with.
Last week, Cooper published an op-ed in the New York Times reflecting on the episode and his life in birding.
“A part of me was always keenly aware that for me, as a Black man, stalking behind a shrub with a black metal object in my hands would most likely be interpreted far differently — dangerously differently — from a white birder doing the very same thing and holding the same pair of binoculars,” he wrote.
In response to the racist threats Cooper encountered while birding in one of his favorite local spots, a group of Black students and professionals in the STEM fields known as the BlackAFinSTEM collective founded Black Birders Week, which takes place at this time of year.
Still Cooper, who now hosts the TV show "Extraordinary Birder" for National Geographic, noted the wide racial gap in national park attendance: According to the National Park Service's Visitor Services Project, fewer than 2% of park visitors are Black, while fewer than 5% are Latino or Asian American.
“My perception of why that statistic would be so warped is because the ability of white people to get out and go on a trip out into a national park is a bit more of a culturally white thing,” Kumar said. “I feel like the natural areas that I tend to frequent are places that either are close to home or they’re spaces that somebody I know is bringing me to.”
Even growing up near a number of national parks in California, Kumar said, she only ventured out into the wilderness through organized trips. Cooper shared this sentiment in his recent op-ed, commenting that Black outdoor enthusiasts create a kind of Green Book for the outdoors, “keeping a mental map of where we do and don’t feel we can bird, camp, hike, climb or simply exist safely.”
In addition to Birdhers, a number of groups have formed in recent years to make the country’s bountiful natural spaces accessible for marginalized groups. Unlikely Hikers, an organization that promotes body-positivity and welcomes members at all levels of ability, holds group hikes throughout the country and is especially focused on making BIPOC individuals feel safe on trails. Portland-based Wild Diversity is a nonprofit promoting outdoor access and enjoyment for BIPOC and LGBTQ communities.
“We’re just trying to break that mentality up piece by piece with the knowledge-sharing,” Clemmons said. “All beginners, all experience levels are welcome. As we’re walking, we make sure to pass down the line what we see from the front to the back. We want everyone to witness it and get curious.”
For more information, visit www.birdherspdx.com.