Assault, harassment allegations are shaking the bird watching community


Content Warning: This article is about rape, sexual assault, and other trauma and may not be suitable for all readers.

Allegations of rape, sexual assault and psychological abuse by prominent male American bird watchers shocked the avian world this week, leading some of them to be removed or resigned from prominent positions.

And like the Me-To-Too movement, this week’s reports are likely just the first similar stories to come to light, according to one of the women who has made allegations in the past few days.

The first reveal came Monday when Aisha White, a bird watcher from Atlanta, posted an in-depth story on her blog which she shared on Twitter, accusing Jason Ward of raping her while the two were in on November 27, 2020 an Atlanta Bird Watching Area Park. Ward hosted the popular YouTube series Birds of North America, hosted last year’s Black Birders Week, and was featured in a Nissan commercial earlier this month.

White, a digital marketer and part-time freelance writer, wrote that she and Ward met in early October while she was on a birding trip he was leading. He soon contacted her on social media and they started bird watching together.

The two were finally together, but at the end of a full-day bird watching excursion in late November, White claims Ward forced himself on her against her will. A day or two after the incident, they ended their relationship.

White’s blog post didn’t name Ward, but she wrote that her attacker was “an authority on diversity and inclusion” and that he put on a bird-watching show that “took him to places across the country”. Birders on Twitter quickly inferred that Ward was the man in question, and White later confirmed that by naming him in a tweet.

White declined to comment on this article. Ward did not respond to a request for comment.

On Tuesday this week, White set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for a possible legal battle against Ward. More than $ 32,600 has been donated to date.

A quick deplatforming

Ward’s employer, American Bird Conservancy, dismissed him from his role as chief diversity officer, a position he began in November. The National Audubon Society, Ward’s former employer, issued a statement that reads in part: “During his tenure at Audubon, which ended in January 2020, we had no information about inappropriate – much less criminal – conduct or we would have acted right Path. Because of the blog post, we ended our relationship with him immediately and permanently. “

Nissan removed the ad with Ward, production company Topic Studios removed Birds of North America from all platforms, and the American Birding Association took offline episodes of their podcast that featured Ward as a guest. Georgia Audubon, for whom Ward was conducting the excursion on the day he and White met, terminated his excursion management contract and later said that “all volunteer and contractor-led activities, including excursions, will be suspended so that We can conduct a thorough assessment of our procedures and protocols. “And BlackAFinSTEM, the group that organized Black Birders Week, removed Ward from the organization.

In addition, several bird watchers, bird watching clubs, and organizations have made statements supporting White.

More allegations

On Wednesday, as the bird-watching world continued to pick up the shocking allegations on social media, charges were brought against two other men.

Amber Hart, a home wildlife photographer and mom who lives in Guntersville, Alabama, posted two Twitter threads describing experiences of mental abuse and sexual assault. She accused Andy Wraithmell, a Florida bird watcher who works for the State Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, of patting her during the January 2014 Christmas bird census, including trying to kiss her. [Wraithmell wrote a hotspot article for BirdWatching in 2007, which we have now removed from our website.]

And she described emotional and psychological abuse during a nearly 18-month friendship with Christopher Collins, founder of the Rogue Birders group and a noted bird watcher in Ohio.

As a result of the allegations, Collins resigned from the Birdability Advocacy Board and a committee of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. And the Ohio Ornithological Society announced that he “has resigned from his position as director general and communications chairman of the board of directors of the Ohio Ornithological Society. The withdrawal is effective immediately. “

“I resigned from the three organizations for the benefit of the organizations,” Collins told BirdWatching.

Wraithmell did not respond to a request for comment.

Met on an online forum

In an interview with BirdWatching Thursday, Hart stated that the reason she brought her stories forward was because Collins sent a tweet of support to Aisha White earlier this week after she made her rape allegations. Hart then replied to Collins on Twitter: “Is Chris Collins taking a break from manipulating and abusing women here to * review * notes and pretend to care about the victims?”

When bird watchers asked on Twitter what she was talking about, “she decided it was time” to post the details of her interactions with Collins and Wraithmell.

She says her allegations against Collins did not involve physical or sexual abuse, a point Collins also emphasizes. “To categorize this situation with Jason Ward’s situation is outrageous,” says Collins. “These are criminal rape allegations. That’s nothing compared to that. ”

Hart says she and Collins met on a bird watching forum in November 2012 and soon became friends through text and email. She later described a series of ups and downs in friendship in which Collins said flattering things, but “then he’d find a reason to tear me down: ‘You know, you’re a fat slut. You don’t even know birds and nobody knows who you are. You are nobody ‘

“I still remember exactly how I once said to him, ‘I’m going to tell people what you’re doing. ‘And he said,’ You are a nobody. Nobody knows who you are ”

Collins said that he is responsible for his actions. “I apologize for things I’ve said that hurt your feelings – clearly,” he says. “There was never any intention of causing harm.”

“Permanent Scars”

Hart says she and other women who knew Collins tried several years ago to warn bird watching groups not to work with him. Without concrete evidence of the abuse, the organizations took no action.

“Although he is not a rapist and does not commit physical abuse, he is emotional and mental [abusive]”Says Hart.” And I think maybe that was one of the reasons people kind of shrugged. I have a feeling that people don’t take this type of abuse seriously.

“It’s like, ‘Well, he didn’t hit you, didn’t rap you, what’s your problem? Just keep going. He’s an idiot. He’s a mean person. ‘

“That stuff, if you’ve never seen it before, leaves permanent scars. And in one of the tweets I say that he took things away from me that I will never get back. It changed me as a person. I often told my friends that I’ve met since then, “I wish you knew me before I knew him because you would see the difference. Who I was then is not who I am now. ‘

“One of the things that has been difficult over the past seven years has been watching someone who had harmed me and was almost starting to gain celebrity status in the community. People knew who Rogue Birders were, they knew who Chris was. He was on tour, he was on the board. ”

When asked about Hart’s allegations of psychological and emotional abuse, Collins said, “I regret and apologize for the verbal and emotional abuse she has suffered from me.”

Red flags ignored?

Hart says she spoke in part this week because “I was angry with Aisha – very angry with her” and that a number of people “including myself saw some red flags” about Jason Ward “and neither of us did anything “.

She continued, “I was angry that this kept happening because I heard so many stories. I’ve had people in my inbox telling me things that just blow your mind about what’s going on. ”

“I thought we had to do something, right? And I can do that with what happened to me. I can hold my abusers accountable, and hopefully people will see mine held accountable and Jason held accountable and maybe more people will come forward. That is the ultimate goal for me. ”

She says she has heard of abuse against women in bird watching, as well as scientific areas affecting research in the wild, including botany and entomology. “It is everywhere.”

Hart also hopes that allegations like hers will be investigated without having to be raised on social media. “I didn’t have to go to Twitter to blow up this huge thing for me to be taken seriously.”

The story was updated to clarify that Collins was a member of a committee, not the board of directors, of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory.

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