When it comes to birding, I constantly make mistakes. I think I know what is true, but I don’t. I discover my errors by taking the time to learn what is real for myself. My observations often challenge my assumptions and have recently taught me an important lesson about racism.

Years ago, when I drove through the neighborhood where we now live, I would scan the lake, looking for birds. (Warning: Do not try this at home.) I never saw anything and assumed that this man-made reservoir was biologically dead. The lake was good for boating and swimming, but nothing else.

After we moved in, I discovered I was wrong. The lake is full of fish and attractive to birds. After thousands of spring migrants move through, mallards and Canada geese raise families here. I had assumed my impressions, based on quick glances, were the whole picture.

Last winter, the lake was the feeding ground for a convocation of bald eagles. When neighbors spoke of eagles nesting in our woods, I scoffed. The local bird sanctuary blocks the trail through the nesting area in the spring to ensure the eagles have the privacy they require. Our neighborhood is much too urban for breeding bald eagles.

Some of our winter visitors. (Photo by Kurt Fristrup.)

But birders we talked with insisted they’d seen eagles carrying sticks into the cottonwood grove. It was true that two young eagles were still hanging around. I saw them feeding together and surveying the lake from our neighbor’s roof. Then one day, I finally spotted their big messy nest in the woods along the shore.

Bald eagle on the neighbor’s roof. (Cell phone photo by Kit Dunsmore)

There were bald eagles nesting in our neighborhood. I was astonished but grateful to be wrong. It’s possible our young eagles are just playing house. When they’re serious about starting a family, they may nest somewhere more isolated. But I still made a mistake. I assumed what applies to some bald eagles applies to them all.

Our local pair of bald eagles. (Cell phone photo by Kit Dunsmore.)

What does all of this had to do with racism?

Recently, I read J. Drew Lanham’s list of revelations for the black American bird-watcher. It opened my eyes and broke my heart. Even though it uses birds as examples, it paints a vivid picture of the prejudices blacks face in America, prejudices that can make even an innocent activity like birding dangerous.

As a woman, I know what it’s like to have to be careful. There are places I would never go alone, clothes I wouldn’t dare wear in public, out of fear of being attacked. But when I plan a birding trip, these things never cross my mind. I don’t bird alone, so I feel perfectly safe.

But what really keeps me safe when I bird a lonely reservoir or a dirt road through the prairie? My skin color. That’s what Lanham’s list taught me.

Everyone deserves to be safe, especially when enjoying the natural world through an activity like birding.

We have to stop assuming we know who someone is just because of their skin color. Not all black men are aggressive and dangerous. We need to watch and see what people do, find out from their words and actions who they really are, rather than act on our assumptions.

Otherwise, we’ll just keep making horrible, deadly, tragic mistakes.

Do you fall prey to assumptions? How do you avoid from making these kinds of mistakes?

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