Photo courtesy Christina Greer.
From the winter 2021 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Kampala, Uganda last year. We spent the first few days of 2020 soaking up the sun and enjoying what the new year had in store for me, my family, friends and my country. Even though I was on vacation, I read that a mysterious virus was making people sick in China.
When I returned to the US and started teaching my courses for the semester and traveling to political lectures, I had no idea that by the second week of March I would essentially lock up in my 800 square foot apartment. As the coronavirus hit New York City and the deaths and infections skyrocketed, I stayed inside as much as possible and did what so many Americans did in the first few weeks of the lockdown – baked banana bread, participated in yoga online Took courses and almost finished a puzzle and spent far too much time on Zoom. Then I decided to go to Dover, Delaware, to stay with my father for a couple of weeks. We were both able to use the company, and I needed fresh air and a less urban environment to walk around without literally bumping into people when I went to the store.
As I got used to my new living environment with my dad (something I hadn’t done since high school), I woke up every morning around 5 a.m. to the sounds of the Dover bird community – pigeons cooing, bubbling wrens, geese who settled down the water. I felt a bit like Snow White waking up from a deep sleep every morning and sounding louder than the alarm clock on my cell phone.
American Robin by Jim Pottkotter, one of Greer’s new bird watching connections.
After long days of Zoom meetings, I sat on my father’s terrace and contented myself with what I called my “evening bird drama”. Although I appear on cable news broadcasts often as a political analyst, I don’t watch much TV. So I sat down every afternoon and listened to the bird songs and chirps and calls. The sweet chirp helped my muscles relax a bit, and for minutes each day I forgot that we were living in the middle of a pandemic. I got so excited about a variety of conversations in the bird community that I started working outside all day.
When people say stop and smell the flowers, I tell them to stop and listen to the birds.
To my surprise, I saw Cardinals, Blue Jays, Orioles, and so many different warblers. One afternoon I saw a crow (or was it a raven?) Steal an egg from a cardinal’s nest, and a chase ensued. There were birds in the area that seemed like they wanted to warn their comrades to come back and guard the nest, but unfortunately they were too late. As I watched the scene play out and the noises continued for minutes after the act, my heart raced. In that moment I felt alive, connected and changed forever.
Being able to observe nature during a lockdown fed my soul. Although I did not venture far past my father’s terrace, I could still feel connected to a world that surrounded me. I felt connected and protected at the same time. It was as if my senses were sharpened while standing still and I could hear and see the birds. When people say stop and smell the flowers, I tell them to stop and listen to the birds.
Jason Ward was one of the first bird watchers Greer followed on Twitter. Ward hosted the acclaimed Birds of North America video series on YouTube and works for the American Bird Conservancy.
When my time in Dover came to an end and I made my way back to Brooklyn and started following various bird watchers on Twitter. Around this time, Christian Cooper, an African American bird watcher, was approached in New York’s Central Park about a racist incident that carried national news. A week later, young black bird watchers across the country were organizing #BlackBirdersWeek on social media, and I found that the diversity between birds – and bird watchers – was beyond my imagination. I started following tweets from Jason Ward, a young African American bird watcher from the Bronx, and his community of followers who posted bird sightings in NYC parks just blocks from my apartment. Now as I walked through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Prospect Park, I looked up to enjoy the lone woodpecker or hawk just hanging out and watching the traffic.
The past few months have been incredibly stressful for many – for people who have emotional fear of contracting coronavirus, the status of their employment, zooming in on their children, or dealing with losses in a variety of situations. I have to admit that the bird watching discovery during this period was a rescue and a rescue. Waking up every morning to hear the sounds of a wren, thrasher, or even a pigeon reminds me that I’m alive and part of something bigger, even if I’ll be in my apartment all day.
Birds have become a symbol and a reminder of inner peace and I am very grateful for this discovery in this uncertain time in our country and in the world. I’m also so grateful that I discovered the bird watching community on Twitter. I think of my new friendship with bird photographer Jim Pottkotter, a retiree in Tennessee who posts the most beautiful bird pictures on Twitter every morning as if to remind the world to start their day with an appreciation of the wondrous nature.
Greer started following Jim Pottkotter on Twitter for his bird photos; The woodpecker with the golden front that she displays on her bookshelf is one of his paintings.
I’m not sure how I got started following Jim on social media, but as a mutual Twitter follower, I felt connected to someone hundreds of miles away when I was quarantined in Brooklyn. When would I have crossed paths with Jim and his gentle spirit, wouldn’t it have been for bird watching? Through our friendship, I discovered that it was not far from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the birthplace of my grandfather and great-grandparents. While we were talking about the summer, he shared pictures of his discoveries in the street while visiting me in the big city. I have no idea about Jim’s politics or what he was doing before he retired, but I know that he and his family will keep me on their minds while New York City battles this pandemic. I know that Jim’s coffee table book and calendar gave me immense pleasure on dreary days. Seeing the freedom in his photographs reminds me of easier times and hopefully times after the pandemic. Its birds are a symbol of hope, simplicity, patience, focus on what is really alive and important in the world.
Last year has been a tough one for so many Americans. For me as a black American and political scientist, it has been busy, emotionally and intellectually exhausting, and at times scary. Bird watching has been an asset to my life that helps me keep what is really important in context and as a priority.
I am not an experienced bird watcher. I will probably never know the difference between the warbles or their calls and songs. But I just signed up for a six-week virtual bird watching course with Jason Ward, so maybe I shouldn’t sell myself out just yet.
I know that bird watching has made me feel more connected to myself, the country and my fellow citizens. While we wait to get out of the grip of this pandemic, we must practice patience as a virtue. And there is no better exercise in patience than waiting for a bird to appear or listening to its call.
Dr. Christina Greer is an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Persecution of the American Dream, and a contributor to the FAQ-NYC podcast. She is currently working on a book about Barbara Jordan, Fannie Lou Hamer and Stacey Abrams.