Douglas “Birdman” Gray

“African Americans have a somewhat unknown heritage in the historical realm of birding”

Outdoor Afro interviews Douglas Gray, an avid birder, who shares in his own words the gratification he experiences birding, and why it is an important and relevant activity for anyone.
How did you develop an interest in birds?
My interest in birds started as a young child.  I grew up on my grandfather’s farm outside Clarksville, Tennessee (actually Woodlawn, Tennessee, but “Woodlawn” is a lot harder to find on a map!).  Naturally I would see many birds on the farm, and I’d ask my grandfather, “Granddaddy, what’s the name of that bird?” My grandfather, who only had a 6th grade education, somehow knew the names of all the birds we would encounter on the farm.  I’m sure that’s what initiated my interest in birds.  I’ve been told I don’t “look” like a bird watcher, so this question is probably the most frequent question I get asked.
Where is your favorite place to look for birds? And where in the world would you like to bird you have yet to visit?

Many times I’m looking for a particular species of bird, so many times my “favorite place to look for birds” is the particular habitat of the bird I’m searching for. However, if I “had” to pick a specific spot, it’s going to probably be in the southern United States.  This past fall I went birding at a place called Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida…and had one of the best birding times of my life.  I look forward to returning there soon and often.  I like birding at National Wildlife Refuges across the US.
I would absolutely LOVE to bird throughout Central and South America, and also Africa. I’m also developing a good birding relationship with a friend who lives in Uganda, and will likely be going there next year.
Why should African Americans take an interest in birds and their habitat?
This is an interesting question.  African Americans, like everyone else, should take an interest in birding, because it puts you “outdoors” and anytime one gets in the Great Outdoors, it is a natural stress reliever. Being out in nature is possibly, I believe, the most calming, relaxing, and unwinding thing one can do.  It really helps put our sometimes fast paced and hectic lives into a better and more realistic prospective by slowing us down.  And while out in nature, what better thing to do than bird? Yes, I’m using “bird” as a verb; I suggest the book, “The Verb To Bird”.
And also, we African Americans have a somewhat unknown heritage in the historical realm of birding.  John James Audubon is the “Godfather of American Birding”.  Audubon’s mother was not well known.  The reason for this is because she was a Creole slave.  Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785.
Wow — that’s fascinating. So, if someone were to get started, what are the three most important things they need to have? Is it easy? What are some barriers (if any)?
I believe the three most important things to have in getting started birding are: 1) Binoculars, 2) Identification Guide, and 3) Desire.  Binoculars are important because birds have no particular interest in folks approaching them and observing them.  So the binoculars allow you to see birds up close, without actually having to be up close to them.  I usually tell folks to get a decent pair of binoculars.  You can get a decent pair of binoculars in the 60-100 dollar range.  A bird identification guide is a very useful tool also.  It will greatly assist in identifying the birds you do see…and just aren’t sure what they are.  And having a desire to see birds will never be extinguished.  Birding is a pursuit that will easily last a lifetime.  A very close fourth item is to go birding with more experienced birders.  Birders love passing along knowledge they’ve gained through experience.  Find a free bird hike in your area by checking out the National Audubon Society’s web site.

Birding can be both easy and challenging.  For example it can be easy identifying a bird as a “sparrow” that’s at your feeder, but it can be challenging differentiating the 3-5 different species of sparrows at your feeder, or the 20-30 different species of sparrows all within an hour’s drive of the feeder in your backyard at different times of the year.
Anybody can birdwatch.  There are no obstacles or barriers that cannot be overcome when the desire is there to see birds. (That includes obstacles like poison ivy and stinging nettle one may bump into off the beaten trail…lol.)  I’ve even had folks on some of my bird hikes who have been constrained to wheel chairs…and some of those have been my favorite and most memorable hikes.
What was the first bird to make your ‘life’ list? What bird do you hope to see in the future?
I’ll answer this question by mentioning the bird that reignited my interest in birds.  About 15 years ago I looked outside and saw a bird hopping around my yard and I had no idea what that bird was.  It led me to buy my first Bird Identification Guide since my high school years.  The bird was a juvenile robin.  The very common American Robin was the bird that pulled me back into the world of birding.
Name a bird species you hope to see in the future:

Wow…I can’t even answer this question, because there are so many birds that I hope to see.  I will say that it is my desire to see thousands of different bird species during my lifetime…and to enjoy and appreciate each and every one that I do see!

Douglas Gray resides in Indianapolis and works in Parenteral Engineering with Eli Lilly and Company. Most of his current birding takes place in Indiana, with a concentration on Central Indiana, where he leads bird walks for Backyard Birds.