“Are you here for the birds?” asked Tykee James as congressional staffers trickled toward him.
The cloudy forecast in Washington wasn’t enough to ruin his first bird walk on Capitol Hill since the pandemic began. If anything, he saw it as a positive.
“It helps colors stick out, like on that goldfinch,” James told the crowd, which grew to about a dozen.
Between the coffee, the doughnut holes and a stack of binoculars, the 27-year-old had come prepared. He even had some bird jokes ready to go. (How do you spot an immature mockingbird? It “tells a lot of fart jokes.”)
He didn’t want to launch into a policy lecture, at least not today. For now, he wanted to share an experience. “Everybody should have a story about birds,” he said.
James has been watching birds since he was a teenager, and last year he co-founded Black Birders Week to push back against racism in the field. He also works as government affairs coordinator at the National Audubon Society, which is why he was up early on this Friday morning in June. Bringing Congress closer to nature is a big part of his job.
The event began at the Bartholdi Fountain, the hulking cast iron landmark across from the Rayburn House Office Building. Surrounded by lush plants, it was a good place to see how much wildlife manages to thrive near the home of the legislative branch.
After a short tutorial on how to use the field glasses, the group spotted birds foraging for serviceberries and other morsels.
Next they walked down the National Mall, where the birds were just as busy.
James pointed out a pair of crows — three together makes a murder, but there were only two, so it was just “attempted murder.” A mourning dove appeared along the way, plus robins, some cardinals and goldfinches that fly in a bouncy pattern reminiscent of a “potato chip.”
Through the field glasses
It was a fresh look at a familiar landscape. People tend to see the Capitol as a cold hunk of marble, a perfect habitat for partisans or tourists. But Friday was all about finding the birds.
James started doing walks like these in 2019 as another chance to raise awareness for Audubon’s conservation efforts. What better way to get members of Congress and their staff excited about birds than a stroll in their own backyard?
The pandemic put a stop to it for a while. Friday’s congressional bird walk was the first in more than a year, and James kept his head on a swivel, peering down into bushes and up at trees, street signs and lamps.
“This is precious,” one staffer said to another as they came across two baby ducklings nestled together on the edge of the Capitol Reflecting Pool.
When the group spotted a female red-winged blackbird, James pointed out her muted color compared to the male.
“This is a bird that does not need to be gaudy,” he said. “This is a bird that’s sure of herself.”
Erika Schlager, who works in the nearby Ford House Office Building, got swept up in the tour by accident as she commuted past the fountain.
“I come here all the time,” Schlager said.
She gladly dropped her morning routine to feed a new interest. During the pandemic, she started to look for birds on walks near her Virginia home, where a little blue heron caught her eye.
Birding for justice
Many birders have a first bird or a “spark bird” that draws them to the pastime, James said.
For him, that was the belted kingfisher, usually seen on high perches close to water waiting to plunge toward finned prey. He had studied the kingfisher in books, but nothing compared to seeing it in person.
“When I got to be present for it, I was like, ‘Wow, this can mean something to more people,’” he said. “For me, it’s not just showing people the bird, it’s connecting the bird to the place that they’re in.”
The Philadelphia native traveled around in his childhood but returned to the City of Brotherly Love in high school and got his first job at West Philadelphia’s Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center. At first the job was just meant to help him pay for college on the way to becoming a math teacher, but before long he found a calling as an environmental advocate.
Birding became a way for James to illuminate injustice, whether it was the fact that some of the parks in his neighborhood didn’t have park benches or trash cans like other parts of the city, or the fact that the land he toured once belonged to indigenous people.
“Paying attention to birds means you’re paying attention to the environment,” he said.
While James steered clear of policy proposals during Friday’s walk, he believes the federal government has a role to play.
“Bird conservation is a place in environmental policy where we do see a lot of bipartisanship,” he said.
Protecting birds is one of his goals. Another is making outdoor spaces more inclusive. People of color remain more likely to live in neighborhoods without immediate access to nature, and many Black birders have encountered racism in the wild — much like Christian Cooper did in Central Park last spring. When Cooper asked a white woman to follow the rules and leash her dog, she called 911 on him.
A video of the incident went viral, and James joined with other birders to push back. That was the beginning of Black Birders Week, which aims to highlight the experiences of people of color in the white-dominated outdoors.
This year’s (mostly virtual) event wrapped up on Saturday, and James said he was pleased to see it take on a life of its own. Despite its sometimes painful history — with species named after slaveholders and nature treated like a private club — birding can be joyful, whether in Central Park, West Philadelphia or right outside the Capitol in Washington where laws are made.
“The Black experience goes beyond trauma,” he said. “And Black Birders Week demonstrated that the Black experience includes joy, pride, resistance, strength and style.”