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.

16 Thoughts on “Douglas "Birdman" Gray”

    • Girl — you are killing me with the Carnival hustle — are you getting a finder’s fee? 🙂

      I think he vaguely mentioned Robin, but I will ask him to reply here. Thanks, as always, for your comments and support!

  • Loved Douglas “Birdman” Gray’s story! Very interesting information about Audubon’s mother being a Creole slave.

    Douglas story put me back in touch with my childhood fascination for birds. I use to watch them for hours and was always so excited as a child to tell my dad the name of the bird I would see. Even at 6 years old, I was proud to know the name of a few of birds – I could identify.

    My interest in birds has been reignited!


  • @DNLee I started kinda late getting my “official” birdlist started. So I’m currently only at about 670 species. And all of those are US birds. But when I start birding more out of the country my list will grow quickly. (I wish I had been listing while spending about 10 years in the military. I’d be at goal about now…lol)

  • I truly enjoyed reading Douglas Gray’s post. I too am an avid birder and enjoy few things more than adding a bird to my life list. It has always been my belief that experiencing and appreciating nature helps take the “edge” off of life. It allows you to become more calm, more thoughtful, and more aware of things other than yourself.

    It was very interesting to learn that Audobon’s mother was a creole slave and that he was born in Haiti. Wow! You can probably find out what President Obama had for breakfast this morning, but Audobon’s heritage seems to be a closely guarded secret that has been well kept for generations.

    Thank you for a very interesting article. I hope everyone will go out tomorrow and find a life bird.

  • @Vaughn Cottman

    Vaughn, I soooo agree with you that nature has a way of taking the “edge” off.

    I often take teenage boys out on backpacking hikes of a few miles…and spending the night camping. I REALLY like it when I get a “self-declared”, “gansta”, “baller”, who’s rolling in the “lettuce”, working his “hoes”……….and when I get him in the woods, this person be all up on me scared to death. It’s a humbling experienced for this person to be “punked” by a couple of gnats in the daytime, and Great Horned Owl hooting for hours at 0-dark-thirty in the morning. I’ll let them know, “You been fronting about how tough you are haven’t you?” LOL.

    Sometimes the “edge” being taken off a young man like this is a very, very good thing.


    • Thanks Doug and Cottman for your thoughtful insights and introspection on the power of birding for all people. For those who think it’s just about birds are missing the point. The fate of birds and other wildlife is inextricably tied to humans and our survival, and gives us a chance to see our place in the context of the world.

      I am taking a small group of novice birders out this weekend and hope they come away with a renewed sense of the wildlife found right in their own backyard. I am looking forward to sharing more about this topic, and I welcome and appreciate you chiming in.


  • Thanks Paul! Great links:

    “He was the illegitimate child of the daughter of a respectable Creole family—one Mile. Rabin, who died a few months after his birth—and Jean Audubon, a French naval lieutenant and New World real estate speculator. Jean Audubon seems also to have had a great way with the ladies. In Haiti he begat at least one other child, Rosa, with another Creole woman”

    We had a terrific time this Saturday as well — the latest post tells the whole tale, complete with species list!

    Glad you chimed in!

  • I love this interview. I’m going to link to it from our local (Duluth, MN) Audubon website. Thank you so much for this great content.

  • We sure enjoyed our bird walk together at the biggest week. I was thinking about sermons with bird themes as well as points made using birds and thunk a thought. Someone commented on the beauty of a gliding turkey vulture high in the sky. It was attractive but when seen soaring but very ugly and not something you would like to spend time with seen up close. The thought I thunk was: That’s just like sin. Bill

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