It’s 8:00 a.m. on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Tykee James is peering through his binoculars at the tips of tree branches, scanning for the slightest movement.
“I do a lot of my birdwatching in cities,” he says. “People don’t think about cities as ecosystems, unfortunately. Cities have green spaces that may not rival the geographic scale of a national park, but the stories that can come from city parks are big.”
For James, birding is much more than simply spotting birds — it’s a way of connecting people to their environment. James is the Government Affairs Coordinator for National Audubon Society and leads monthly birdwalks for Congressional staffers around the National Mall near the Capitol. The walks are nonpartisan and mostly nonpolitical, but James hopes that by getting people outside and engaging with the birds, they’ll start to care about them, and conservation, at a deeper level.
“On these bird walks, congressional staff have the opportunity to share co-sponsorship ideas with one another about important bills for birds,” James says.
And birds need the help. According to the 2019 study Survival by Degrees by Audubon, if the current rate of climate change continues, two-thirds of America’s birds will be threatened with extinction. Sea level rise, drought and loss of habitat from human development are existential issues. Birds are important indicator species, too — the "canaries in a coal mine" that forewarn of crisis in an ecosystem.
James also uses birds to help explore issues of injustice.
“I realized that birdwatching was not just a way for me to connect with my community, to understand how structural racism has formed access to parks and green spaces, but it’s also a way to connect people with stories of places,” he says. “Looking at birds is a way to understand flaws in a city’s design.”
In the United States, people of color are more likely to have inadequate access to parks and green spaces, which has negative health impacts. It also means they are likely to live in 'heat islands," urban areas that have higher temperatures than their surroundings due to man-made structures like buildings and roads that absorb and then emit heat from the sun. In places with more greenery, plants absorb the sun’s heat through photosynthesis. This results in urban areas with high concentrations of structures having 1-7 degrees Fahrenheit higher average daytime temperatures than outlying greener areas. This increase in heat leads to heat exhaustion, stress and respiratory difficulties.
James is also active in trying to increase access and representation to the outdoors and birding. In 2020, after the racist incident in Central Park involving birdwatcher Christian Cooper, James and other Black birders co-founded Black Birders Week. The week-long event highlights and promotes the work of Black naturalists and tries to normalize the existence of Black scientists, birders, and outdoorspeople. James is co-chair of Amplify the Future an organization that provides the Black and Latinx Birders scholarships for undergraduate students interested in birding. He is also a co-founder of Freedom Birders, a movement and education project that seeks to make birding a more liberating experience, providing racial justice curriculum and bird education. In the future, James hopes for a multi-day, multi-state birding event inspired by the Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement, traveling from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans, and exploring “no go zones” for birders in the South.
“I think about how white supremacy has had a head start in defining the outdoors, in defining wilderness, in defining who belongs here,” says James. “I don’t think that we can achieve environmental progress if we’re not combating racism, if we’re not combating systemic oppression of people, in our vision. Everybody still has a story about birds. That connects people to things today, to what the history of land has been, and think it will motivate people. When we’re answering that question of what we do next, they’re going to think about birds too.”