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First-Ever Black Birders Week Tackles Racism Outdoors

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First-Ever Black Birders Week Tackles Racism Outdoors
Photo credit: Black Birders Week seeks to highlight the experiences of Black scientists and nature lovers. Chad Springer / Image Source / Getty Images

A video of an incident in Central Park last Monday, in which a white woman named Amy Cooper called the cops on African American birder Christian Cooper after he asked her to put her dog on a leash, went viral last week, raising awareness of the racism Black people face for simply trying to enjoy nature.


In response, a group of more than 30 Black scientists and nature lovers decided to launch the first-ever Black Birders Week, a social media event intended to raise awareness of African American participation in outdoor activities and the challenges they face, Audubon Magazine reported.

"For far too long, Black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities are not for us," Corina Newsome, who studies seaside sparrows at Georgia Southern University, said in a video announcing the week. "Whether it be the way the media chooses to present who is the 'outdoorsy' type, or the racism Black people experience when we do explore the outdoors, as we saw recently in Central Park. Well, we've decided to change that narrative."

The week kicked off Sunday, May 31 under the banner of BlackAFinSTEM. Newsome told Audubon Magazine that the week and the newly organized group of scientists had three goals: to change the national image of who belongs outdoors, to educate the birding community about the racism faced by its Black members and to encourage diversity in outdoor studies and hobbies.

"Diversity is important for the robustness of any community trying to do anything," Newsome said.

While the week was initially organized in response to what happened to Christian Cooper, it has coincided with a week of nationwide protests following the racist murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breyonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others, something the organizers acknowledged.

"Many of us work in the outdoors, in urban areas and wilderness. It could've easily been anyone of us. We want our peers to not only recognize our existence but our experiences being Black. The history books set a precedent for civil unrest in the face of injustice," the group tweeted Sunday. "We want it to be clear that we stand with the protesters fighting against police brutality even as we organize a protest specific to being #BlackinNature."

At the same time, the week offers a chance to celebrate the contributions that Black scientists and conservationists are already making to their fields, offering a respite from images of pain and violence, as co-founder and University of Georgia natural resources graduate student Sheridan Alford told High Country News.

"[W]e think that it's very important to highlight the work that people are actually doing and kind of drive that conversation to, yes, look at us, and please acknowledge the hardship we go through — but as you acknowledge those hardships, also look at what we've been doing in our research, or what we've been doing in our communities to better the climate as a whole. So I think this week kind of fell exactly where it needed to, as far as time frame," she said.

There are virtual events scheduled for every day of the week except Wednesday. It began Sunday with a call to Black researchers and birders to share pictures of themselves in the field using the hashtag #BlackInNature.

On Monday, participants were invited to share pictures or facts related to birds under the hashtag #PostABird. Tuesday saw a Twitter live chat called #AskABlackBirder. On Thursday, there will be a livestream discussion of #BirdingWhileBlack from 7 to 8:30 p.m. EST. And Friday wraps up with a day devoted to #BlackWomenWhoBird.

Non-Black birders are encouraged to participate by retweeting posts and learning from the livestream, according to Audubon.

"We are not excluding anyone," Alford told High Country News. "The whole purpose is to highlight and showcase Black birders, and anybody can do that."

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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