A Bird Show Spots a Rival, and Bird-Watchers of Color Are Angry

For Jason Ward, an animal lover who grew up in homeless shelters in the South Bronx, hosting the bird-watching web series “Birds of North America” is beyond a dream job.

Ward, 32, has birded in Prospect Park with the comedian Wyatt Cenac, near Brooklyn Bridge with the Feminist Bird Club, and in Cape May, N.J., with his mentor, J. Drew Lanham, a wildlife biologist and fellow birder of color. Birders of color are pretty rare, which is why the program exists: to show that they do, too.

So Ward and his producers were shocked earlier this week when Rolling Stone unveiled a new bird-watching web series that shared uncanny similarities with Ward’s show.

Called “Birding With Charles,” it also featured a black host, Charles Holmes, taking a guest bird-watching — in the first episode it’s rapper Valee, who visits Central Park with Holmes. Accompanied by a tinkling piano overture and a British narrator, the host commits a series of bird-watching no-nos: he harasses a bird by chasing it, he disses a mourning dove and a robin as “basic” — “us top-tier bird-watchers don’t even care about ’em,” he says — and stands by silently as Valee lights up a blunt.

For Ward and Anna Holmes, the editorial director of Topic.com, which produces “Birds of North America,” it seemed that Rolling Stone was making fun of their show. “It felt like it was a co-option of our series, and on top of that was mocking the very idea of what we are trying to do,” Holmes (who is unrelated to the “Birding With Charles” host) said in an interview. She and scientists and birders of colors took to Twitter to criticize Rolling Stone for, as one bird-watcher tweeted, “damaging the work that we black birders and biologists have done to bring our people into these spaces.”

But Rolling Stone says it’s all a coincidence.

A spokesman for the magazine, Jeffrey W. Schneider, said “Birding With Charles” was not based in any way on “Birds of North America” but instead on the 1991 television series “Fishing With John,” in which the hip downtown actor and musician John Lurie went fishing with his equally hip friends, among them Tom Waits and Jim Jarmusch. Indeed Lurie responded to the controversy with a tweet of his own: “I believe if anyone should be upset then that would be me — but they are going to have me on a future episode — shaking my fist and yelling — You dirty crooks!”

Schneider said the Rolling Stone editorial team settled on birding because “anyone could do it” and its offices are close to Central Park. The staff members had not seen “Birds of North of America” when they developed the show, he added.

He provided a screenshot of a producer’s handwritten calendar entry indicating, he said, that they were kicking around an idea for a “Fishing With John”-esque show on March 14. The first episode of “Birds of North America” was posted on March 17, though a teaser trailer went up March 8. More “Birding With Charles” episodes are planned.

While “Birding With Charles” has the tongue-in-cheek feel of a Portlandia sketch, Schneider would not address the criticism from birders of color that the show was promoting stereotypes, saying only that Ward’s show “is really cool and it is not something we would ever try to parody or ridicule.”

Told of Rolling Stone’s response, Anna Holmes said one of the basic steps in developing a series is seeing what comparable products are on the market. “Jason Ward put himself out there, publicly and prominently,” she wrote in an email on Thursday. “One would have had to work very, very hard to avoid clocking his show doing that kind of scan.”

“Birds of North America” was shaped by serendipity, a meeting of the minds and Ward’s lifelong fascination with wildlife.

Ward grew up poor in the South Bronx, he said. As an animal lover whose family could not afford cable and channels like National Geographic, he hit the library, getting lost in books about animals because they transported him to the places animals lived. One day in his early teens, he saw a peregrine falcon attacking a pigeon outside his window. Ward was enraptured, and his fascination with birds began. He started birding after moving to Atlanta; soon he was leading nature walks and tweeting (as it were) about hard-to-identify birds.

Holmes, meanwhile, had been wanting to develop a series that highlighted people of color interacting with the natural world, in part because of her roots. She is African-American and the daughter of a ranger with the National Park Service.

“It’s very important to me, and has been my whole life, to underscore that people who engage with natural world — campers, hikers, birders — are not just white people who wear Patagonia,” Holmes said.

She had Ward shoot a pilot. On camera, he was great: slightly awkward but authentic. “In this really crazy world we live in now, where everyone looks at their phones and is distracted,” Holmes said, “he is celebrating the idea of stopping and being quiet and looking around you, because that’s how you bird.”

The show did not have a big following — the teaser trailer drew 31,000 YouTube views, others episodes a tenth of that — but it did get some traction. The New Yorker ran a “Talk of the Town” item; other articles followed, and Ward forged more connections with people of color working in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

“There are black people in the STEM community working very hard to dispel the whole myth that black people aren’t wildlife savvy and that we don’t enjoy being outdoors,” said Ward, who also works as an outreach coordinator with the National Audubon Society.

If “Birding With Charles” is not meant to be serious, Ward said Rolling Stone should make that much clearer.

“I cannot get behind anything that paints people of color in a less-than-flattering light,” he said, “or attempts to poke fun at something that has brought so many people innumerable amounts of joy.”

Cara Buckley is a culture reporter who covers bias and equity in Hollywood, and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on workplace sexual harassment. @caraNYT Facebook

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