Lockdown Helped to Create a New Generation of Young, Black Birdwatchers

Plus, data shared with VICE shows that around three times as many 18 to 29-year-olds took up the hobby over the last year.
Ollie Olanipekun (left) and Nadeem Perera. Photo: Dhamirah Coombes

It was a cold, wet morning in early December, just before the UK entered its latest lockdown, when Ollie Olanipekun and Nadeem Perera realised they’d tapped into something special. “We had 74 people trekking from across London to join [our birdwatching walk]. On a Sunday morning, at 10AM. In the rain,” Ollie says.

The pair had founded Flock Together, a birdwatching group aimed at “combatting the underrepresentation of black, brown & POC in nature”, just six months before. Ollie, 36, the group’s CEO, had posted sightings from his local park on Instagram Stories, and Nadeem, Flock Together’s 27-year-old Wildlife Director, had messaged him out of the blue.


“Usually you get the classic birdwatching guy – middle-aged, white, wearing khaki – and there's nothing wrong with that, but when I saw Nadeem’s face [in my DMs], I was like, ‘What, no way?’” says Ollie, as I chat to them both over Google Hangouts. “Nadeem is the only person of colour I’d ever come across, apart from myself, in this space, in seven years of birdwatching.”

If they were surprised to find each other, they’ve been even more amazed by how the project has blown up. “On our first two walks, Walthamstow Wetlands and Richmond Park, there were 15 or 20 people,” says Nadeem. “But then there was one where we went to Epping [Forest] and we filled out the whole carpark. We were like, ‘Raaah.’”


Ollie and Nadeem. Photo: Serena Brown

The flock hasn’t stopped growing since. There are now chapters in six other cities, from Toronto to Tokyo, their Instagram is flying, and they’re currently in talks with Channel 4, Netflix and the BBC about producing content. “Month by month, it’s just exploded,” adds Ollie.  

Data from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) suggests that Flock Together’s members aren’t the only ones who turned their eyes upwards as a means of escape during lockdown. On Friday, the 132-year-old charity released the results of its “Big Garden Birdwatch”, (BGBW) a mass-participation study conducted every January that’s become the largest annual wildlife survey in the world. Its findings about Britain’s birds are interesting, but it’s the data about the people behind those numbers that’s really revelatory.


Over a million people logged their sightings for BGBW 2021, more than twice as many as the previous year, and data shared exclusively with VICE shows that the increase was most pronounced among young people. Around three times as many 18 to 29 year-olds took part, as well as more than twice as many 30 to 34-year-olds. Participants were also significantly more likely to be regular social media users than in previous years, with Twitter, appropriately enough, driving a lot of participation, according to the charity. The number of city dwellers taking part also soared. These changes mark a significant demographic shift.

“There’s a cynical part of me which thinks there was nothing better to do on a rainy wet weekend in January,” joked Beccy Speight, CEO of the RSPB, when I spoke to her. “But actually, I think there was something quite genuine going on. I know the word ‘solace’ has been much overused, but I think people genuinely did take more interest, and comfort, from what was going on in their immediate natural world.”

The quiet of the first lockdown meant people in cities heard birdsong more clearly than ever before, and the repetitive routines enforced by movement restrictions – with many people walking the same paths over and over again for their government-sanctioned daily exercise – meant that most observed their local environment more closely than before.

“Birds are this other world, but they’re right on your doorstep,” said Beccy. “Once you get suckered in, it’s pretty infinite how much you can [teach yourself], and you don’t need a whole heap of kit to get into birdwatching.”


Beccy suggested the activity has particular appeal for the younger generation, “who already feel the burden of climate change and the loss of the natural world”, and have perhaps felt more trapped than anyone in the past year.

Birdwatching, Beccy pointed out, has a long history of providing succour for people stuck inside. Its popularity in the UK boomed after WWII, driven by returning POWs “who took it very seriously, as a way to survive the regimes of the prisoner of war camps”.

The sensation of feeling trapped was certainly on Ollie’s mind when he and Nadeem set up Flock Together, and not just because of lockdown. “Post-George Floyd’s murder, I was really really struggling mentally,” he explained. “Everyone in the Black community, we were all experiencing some real fucking shit at that point. We were all being told, in corporate spaces, to come up with the answer to racism, or being told to recall all our worst experiences with racism. It was one of the hardest periods of my life.”

Exploring nature had always been his escape, but it was only when he and Nadeem organised their first birdwatching walk that he realised exploring nature with other people of colour offered a greater escape: “That day in June, when we came together, it was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t have to put this mask on, or pretend.’ Because left and right of me were people that had gone through exactly the same thing.” 


“It was like a therapy session,” Ollie adds. “We could just breathe.

Increasingly, as their flock has grown, the pair have come to realise that this community support aspect of Flock Together is just as important as the birds. Nadeem’s professional background is in youth coaching in east London, Ollie works as a creative director, and the two have made mentorship for people of colour a key pillar of what Flock does. This ranges from getting other members of Flock involved in the ad campaigns they’re increasingly being asked to create for brands like Arc’teryx or Berghaus, to building people’s confidence, by asking them to lead bird walks in their own right.

Nadeem takes huge satisfaction from the fact that he’s “getting kids aged from five up to 17 bugging me to go on bird walks, or asking me for bird guides”, and the pair have recently launched the Flock Together Academy, for younger enthusiasts.

“We want to instil new ideas in the next generation in the hopes that this makes long lasting change,” says Nadeem. Because for all Flock Together’s success, its founders are well aware that in the world of birdwatching (and the wider “outdoor” sector as a whole), people of colour are still, all too often, seen as unusual.

“Visibility is so important,” says Ollie. “So right from the start, we were saying to people, ‘Take as many photos as you can of us in this space and we’ll post them.’” They’ve also sought to change the language of birding, writing about the use of phrases like “alien invasive species”, and taking over the RSPB Instagram to highlight the colonial associations of many species’ names. Still, Nadeem says, “the number one thing we hear from our community is, ‘Nah, that's a white thing.’”

Flock Together is not alone in working to change that stereotype. Mya-Rose Craig, an 18-year-old climate activist of Bangladeshi descent, who tweets as @birdgirl, set up an initiative called Black2Nature in 2016, which organises outdoor events and camps for children of colour – and changes are also afoot at the RSPB, where Beccy Speight is adamant that diversity and inclusion “is an agenda that is absolutely critical to our cause’s success”.

The organisation has had an official diversity and inclusion programme in place since 2015, before she joined, Beccy says, “but it’s almost like we’ve unlocked the door and wondered why there’s still no party going on. It can’t just be about unlocking the door, we have to be getting out there, inviting people to the party and making sure they feel welcome.”

Like Flock Together’s founders, Beccy sees the recent, lockdown-driven spike in interest as an opportunity – an event that could lead to lasting change. “We have this opportunity, as a sector, to really help build up a generation of people who love the natural world,” she said. “We mustn't waste it. It would be carelessness in the extreme if we were to let this go.”

Flock Together will be re-starting their regular group bird walks as soon as restrictions allow. Follow them on Instagram for the latest.