Environmental Science student and Black and Latinx Birder scholarship recipient, Calvin Keeys, shares his insight 

Calvin Keeys shares his journey of networking and connecting with others and how it assisted him in finding opportunities as a young birder in the community. He also shares his involvement in conservation and birding, as well as his environmental experiences as a college student and his hopes of giving back by helping underrepresented communities.

February 2023

All photos provided by Calvin Keeys

How did you get interested in birding?

I’ve always been interested in wildlife from reading books, watching educational shows, and going with my dad to science-related places throughout Philadelphia. Along with mammals, birds were always the animal group I was most interested in, because of their flight and variability. I didn’t start doing anything focused on birds until my junior year of high school when one of the art teachers, Katrina Koplin, told me about the DVOC Young Birders group with members based mainly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I was added to their WhatsApp group where I was able to get to know the members, learn how to draw birds, and go on birdwatches with them to places such as the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and Morris Arboretum.

Tell us a bit about the Scholarship for Black and Latinx birders. What was your application like?

I first found out about the scholarship back in 2020 during the Central Park Birdwatching incident that would eventually lead to the creation of Black Birders Week. During this time, I watched two live streams on the National Audubon Society Facebook page with the first one having Christian Cooper as a special guest. The following month, I watched a Zoom meeting hosted by Tykee James, a government affairs coordinator at Audubon and a co-organizer of Black Birders Week. I learned that Tykee was part of the Wildlife Observer Network, a wildlife-focused media platform, and co-hosts one of the podcasts called “Brothers in Birding”. When I listened to one of the episodes, he mentioned the Black and Latinx Birders Scholarship. The focus of my essay for the scholarship was on the different events, interests, and programs throughout my life that led to me wanting to pursue wildlife biology. My favorite part of the essay was writing about Black Birders Week showcasing numerous black people in the natural science community and the importance of representation. I submitted my application with Katrina’s letter of recommendation and then waited. Eventually, I got accepted for the interview round via Zoom and was able to speak to the co-founders, Tykee James and Orietta Estrada, and the other members of the Amplify the Future committee. It was an absolute pleasure getting to know them and telling them about my upbringing and interests. A few weeks later, I received an email about being accepted for the scholarship.

What opportunities has college opened up for birding

Being at Drexel has given me the opportunity to work at the Academy of Natural Sciences. During the summer of 2022, I was part of Drexel’s STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) program and had the pleasure of working under the mentorship of Dr. Jason Weckstein on my research project about the White-winged becard. From him and the other faculty in the Academy's Department of Ornithology, I was able to learn more about biogeography, specimen prep, scientific research, and more. Currently, I am continuing my research as a work-study along with learning more about ornithology. In the fall, I took a "Practical Identification of Plants and Animals" course. For the final project, we had to choose a group of organisms to make our collection on. I chose birds and used Jason's camera to take pictures of different species throughout the Philadelphia-New Jersey area. Last May, I attended "Black Excellence in Birding", the Academy of Natural Sciences' first Black Birders Week event. I was able to meet Tykee James, the co-founder of the Black and Latinx Birders Scholarship, as well as many other amazing people.

How should birders increase interest and awareness of birding by young people?

Birders should have programs that allow them to engage with communities of young people. This can include scholarships, guided walks and hikes, and internships. I feel that it is crucial to make these opportunities free or very cheap so that anyone can participate and engage with them. I think an effective method of increasing awareness among college students is to reach out to their nature-focused organizations and departments. This is because they'll consist of the college's students and faculty and will thus be able to spread awareness to the rest of the college.

What have you gained from birding?

I have gained a better understanding of not just birds, but the importance of biodiversity. Within my short amount of time in the birding community, I have learned so much about birds and their overall impact on each other and the environments that they inhabit. Being able to meet birders from numerous different backgrounds and demographics (educators, scientists, artists, students, etc.) illustrates the importance of a strong community. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities that birding has given me. Being a DVOC Young Birder led to me learning about and participating in the banding of spring migration birds and saw-whet owls at the Rushton Woods Preserve. Being a Black and Latinx Birders Scholarship recipient allowed me to co-host a bird walk at the John Heinz Refuge with Feminist Bird Club Philly. Two women at the bird walk were Temple grad students who would eventually let me host a bird walk with them at the Discovery Center.

Do you have any recommendations for those considering it?

For those going into it, I recommend that you have the willingness to learn from and engage with others. The community is very welcoming and available if you need help or guidance. There are numerous clubs and events that you can attend to meet people and get started birding. I would also say that you don’t need the most expensive, high-tech equipment, and it is always better to start off within your price range. Lastly, make sure to take the time to explore and observe local natural areas. Doing so will cause you to get better at birding and have a stronger appreciation of your natural environment.