A Talk on the Wild Side.
My name is Felice Yarbough. I’m a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service park ranger with the Houston Community Partnerships and Engagement, an urban wildlife conservation program.
When I first joined the Service in 2019, I was told all these great things, one being that the agency was full of birders.
I didn’t really know what birding was. I could infer it had something to do with birds, but whether it was watching, recording, collecting or a combination of things, I wasn’t quite sure. What I did know was that I was new and I wanted to fit in, but I didn’t know any birders, let alone black women birders. I couldn’t remember a time when I ever used a pair of binoculars.
Birding wasn’t even part of my job description, and yet I felt I was a fraud for not knowing more. I felt I would stick out like a sore thumb being around colleagues if they ever talked about their latest birding adventure and, suddenly, all the other things that I knew would become irrelevant. I decided I would be quiet – listening, studying and hoping I would remember a sliver of the conversation so that I could regurgitate it the next time I was in a similar situation.
Red-winged blackbird at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge near Houston. Photo by Frankie Wimbish
I was fortunate to grow up enjoying the outdoors. It was safe. I played in the leaves that fell from the giant oak tree in the backyard. I made mud pies, discovered an albino ladybug, and I even sat in an ant pile (do not recommend). Still, I didn’t see anyone that looked like me in outdoorsy professions. My role models growing up were engineers, doctors, teachers, people in business, my mom – a scientist who rarely spent a moment outside of the laboratory. When I started to pursue interests in animal sciences, agriculture and conservation, I accepted my choice to be a minority in the field, knowing that I would likely be the only one around who looked like me.
When I heard the recent story of Christian Cooper, a black man who was birding in Central Park when a false police report was called in by a white woman who claimed harassment, it resonated with me. Whether at national wildlife refuges or in other green spaces, it could have been me. I could have been perceived as a threat or someone who didn’t belong.
Like all the other stories, the ones that have become so normal to hear and see on the news, I felt fear. I thought of how my ranger uniform outwardly identifies me as someone who works in these spaces and that should certainly protect me. But what if I wasn’t wearing a uniform? What if I was enjoying nature alone? Would I look suspicious?
We all have a right to our public lands. We deserve to feel safe while enjoying what they have to offer. For me, national wildlife refuges offer an alternative to city life. Growing up, my family didn’t even know about national wildlife refuges. But now, those are places I’m able to practice birding with my new binoculars and geek out on the iNaturalist App, also new to me. I’m forever appreciative to all my colleagues who have supported and taught me so much about birding
Felice Yarbough at a prescribed fire at the W.G Jones State Forest managed the Texas A&M Forest Service. Photo by USFWS
I’m grateful to be a ranger. I’m striving to be the conservation role model that I wish I had growing up. I love the work that I’m doing in Houston – getting to work with kids, many who look like me. I don’t take it for granted. I want them to experience nature in ways I didn’t. Advocacy and mentorship are more important to me now than ever before. As I heard Christian Cooper recently say “birds are modern-day dinosaurs,” and to me that’s something that everyone can get excited about. There is so much work to be done to truly make access to nature equitable for all, but it’s an investment worth making.
I alone cannot accomplish this change, but I hope to be a part of the advocacy for a more diverse and inclusive spectrum of Americans to enjoy their public lands.
Felice Yarbough says – with a smile – that three birds she knows she can identify correctly are coots, red-winged blackbirds and roseate spoonbills (above). Photo by Joe Blackburn
My journey as a black women who birds is just beginning, and I hope that my words inspire you in some way. #BlackInNature