Jason Ward wants to add to the ranks of black birders

Atlanta Audubon field trip leader Jason Ward (third from left) leads a group of bird watchers during a walk at Azalea Park in Roswell, Thursday, September 6, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

Atlanta Audubon field trip leader Jason Ward (third from left) leads a group of bird watchers during a walk at Azalea Park in Roswell, Thursday, September 6, 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

Jason Ward stands motionless and tilts his head slightly to one side, squinting into the morning sun.

He listens and watches for the tiniest sound or slightest movement.

He lifts his binoculars. Suddenly a smile breaks across this face.

“There, look to the right” he says to 10 or so fellow birders, or bird-watchers, he’s leading along the boardwalk at the Azalea and Willeo Road Wetlands in Roswell.

It’s hard for the inexperienced eye to spot, but Ward hones in on a red northern cardinal, perched on a tree branch high above their heads. It flies to another branch, where it is joined by a less colorful female.

Ward, 32, makes an entry in his cellphone.

As they trek deeper into the wetlands, the pattern is repeated.

Stop. Listen. Look.

“About 70 percent of time you’re listening and 30 percent of the time you’re looking,” said Ward, a community relations and outreach coordinator for the National Audubon Society, who is leading the field trip. He’s also host of the YouTube Topic series “Birds of North America.”

He listens for the familiar singing, chirping or cawing.

“You lean heavily on your ears.”

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Ward, who pulls up in a Toyota Corolla with stuffed replicas of a blue jay and a common loon perched on the dashboard, is usually the only African American on bird watching field trips, much less leading them.

A cardinal perches on a tree limb at Azalea Park in Roswell. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

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“We are definitely the rare bird in our community,” said Ward, who is also an apprentice for the Audubon Society in Atlanta and Birmingham.

He aims to change that.

Ward is reaching out to students at historically black colleges and universities in metro Atlanta to engage them in conservation activities and birding.

Although the number of people engaged in birding has grown, black birders remain an elusive group, comprising less than a tenth of the country’s birders, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other environmental groups. Some put the number even lower. Ward knows of a few other black birders in Georgia, but rarely sees them at regular outings. He sees them mostly at special events.

The field remains largely white and older.

“He does have a passion for birding and introducing more diverse communities to the joys of birding,” said Melanie Furr, director of education for the Atlanta Audubon Society. “His enthusiasm for birding is infectious.”

Indeed, there are signs that younger people and people of color are taking up birding.

A love for birds

A native of the South Bronx, Ward has been an “animal nerd” since childhood.

Jason Ward has always been an “animal nerd” and has a particular passion for birds. He aims to diversify the ranks of birders. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

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He would spend hours in the library buried in a pile of books and field guides about “anything that crawled, walked, flew or swam. “I would just dive into these books because they not only introduced me to a great number of species in the world, but it was my way of transporting myself to these locations.”

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His first obsession was dinosaurs and Ward laments that he was ” born about 65 million years too late.”

He didn’t have an easy childhood. There were a number of “distractions that really got the better of us.” The family was evicted during his sophomore year in high school and bounced around among relatives or in homeless shelters. “Everyone goes through peaks and valleys but this was sorta one continuous valley.”

He didn’t become hooked on avians until his teens.

“It was a marriage that was eventually going to happen,” he said. “I loved all animals, but birds were the front-runner because of their ability to change their environment. If they’re in a habitat not suitable to them, they can fly away and find greener pastures. Subconsciously, as a kid growing up in the inner city, I wanted to do that. I lived vicariously through them. Additionally, they were my modern-day dinosaurs.”

Dedicated birdwatchers love to share stories about their spark bird — that one winged creature that first piqued their interest in birds.

For Ward, it was the peregrine falcon.

He was living on the upper floor of a homeless shelter when he noticed feathers drifting down on the ledge.

About 30 feet above, he spotted the falcon feasting on a pigeon.

Jason Ward tweeted about a 2018 experience when appeared to be followed by a police officer. He jokes that it is one of the downsides of being an African American birder. CONTRIBUTED

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“It was that moment that made me realize that birds could temporarily let me escape,” said Ward, who moved to Georgia a dozen years ago after a visit with an older brother, who still lives in Georgia.

That’s when he really got into birding.

Few in number

It’s so unusual to see birders of color, that Ward has received stares from passersby and he says he was once followed by a police officer when scoping out birds in a metro park.

“There’s always a certain level of anxiety when people approach me,” Ward said. “I try to disarm people, so I carry a clipboard and act very professional.”

That doesn’t deter him, though.

J. Drew Lanham, an author and distinguished professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, said that birding is “one of the whitest things that you can do.”

Lanham, who grew up in rural South Carolina and became fascinated with birds as a child, attributes the small number of black birdwatchers or birders to information, access and perception.

“You don’t see people like you doing something, so you don’t do it,” said Lanham, a certified wildlife biologist, who as a child used to construct wings out of cardboard and used his mother’s and grandmother’s umbrella to try to fly.

His first memory of a birdwatcher was the character of Jane Hathaway on the television series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

“I saw this birdwatcher who was this nerdy, geeky, not-so-attractive white woman in a pith helmet in khaki clothing watching birds,” he recalled. “And she was even given a hard time by other white people. Why would anybody choose that hobby.”

For his part, he didn’t meet his first black birder until he was far into adulthood.

“It takes trailblazers and pushers like Jason to show people that it’s possible,” Lanham said. Ward can bring a younger generation into the ranks who can break the perceptions and stereotypes, “so now people can see bird watching, noticing and adoring are cool things to do and they can be a part of your life,” he said. “It can be the extremes where you travel to the far corners of the earth or you can just step out your backdoor.”

Ward, who created TrickyBirdID, a game on Twitter in which he quizzes his followers on bird identifications, recently met with students with Morehouse MoreGreen, a student-led organization that raises awareness about sustainability and the environment.

Morehouse MoreGreen President Curtis Dodds said they hope to work with Ward on a bird banding initiative, which is a way to keep track of birds and their health over the years, as well as other projects.

“I want to change the landscape,” Ward said. “I want to see birding become more colorful.”