Tenijah has been on a birding journey since she was drawn into bird watching at the start of the pandemic — and now, she’s inspiring new birders with Bring Birds Back. For our season finale, Tenijah talks to two of the heroes who inspired her: Tracy Clayton and Ashley C. Ford. They’re podcasters and writers, and they love birds and talk about them on social media or in their work. Tenijah wants to learn how they think about their role in science communication and inspiring new birders — and they have a lot of fun.
Tenijah Hamilton: BirdNote Presents.
[Echoing Wingflap SFX]
[Gentle music with birdsong enters and plays under narration]
Tenijah Hamilton: The last two years have been tough for me. And I’m sure that’s been the case for you too. Something that’s come from that time is that I’ve learned to be very intentional about cultivating joy—keeping phone dates with my loved ones, getting up from my computer for a nature walk, singing with the songbirds.
Early in the pandemic, making space for this joy sometimes felt a little too… self indulgent, almost like it was disrespectful, given the hurt and pain all around me, and all of us frankly. But I soon learned, partially with all the help of my bird friends, that embracing these everyday joys gave me something to pull from when I felt joyless —and it gave me joy to spread.
Today, I’m talking to two people who epitomize this unmitigated joy: best-selling author Ashley C. Ford and award-winning podcaster Tracy Clayton. They are not experts at all when it comes to birds. But their joy for birds is irresistible.
Like, Tracy used to co-host this podcast where she would do this segment called Tracy’s Animal Corner. And I vividly remember her talking about penguins in one episode. She had all these facts about penguins and their interesting behaviors, and she made a very compelling argument that penguins have souls. It was just so obvious how much curiosity and just, glee was there, and it made me more excited about birds. Here’s a clip of Tracy on the podcast, Another Round:
[From Another Round Episode “Another Read (with Crissle West)”]
Tracy Clayton: Let me tell you about the Macaroni Penguin real quick. These motherf***ers have like the most amazing, like blonde weave you've ever seen.
Heben Nigatu: Oh my god.
Tracy Clayton: Swear to god!Swear to god!
Tenijah Hamilton: So, yeah, today is a little different. A lot of fun and laughs. Maybe some half truths about an Australian bird battle.
[Music “Skylark” by Cosmo Sheldrake fades out]
And so, without further ado… from BirdNote, this is Bring Birds Back. I’m Tenijah Hamilton. And I am so excited to be here with my two guests today. Tracy Clayton — host of the podcasts Back Issue and Netflix’s Strong Black Legends. How are you?
Tracy Clayton: I'm good. How are you?
Tenijah Hamilton: Excited. Excited. I'm so happy.
Tracy Clayton: Me too.
Tenijah Hamilton: And also Ashley C. Ford, writer of the acclaimed memoir Somebody’s Daughter. How’s it going Ashley?
Ashley C. Ford: It's a good day. It’s a good day to be here.
Tenijah Hamilton: Yes. And talk about birds. How often do you get to, like, outside of like the Twitter sphere, talk about birds?
Tracy Clayton: You mean talk about birds and have people listen to me and maybe enjoy it? Not very often. I talk about birds all the time, whether I'm with somebody or not, but rarely does anybody say, hey, Trace, what do you think about this bird in particular? So this is, this is a treat for me.
Ashley C. Ford: I think the same is probably true for me.
Tenijah Hamilton: I wanted to interview Tracy and Ashley together because they're friends. Tracey loves to tease Ashley — and as she puts it she’s Ashley's personal nemesis.
Ashley C. Ford: And then I also, I'm from Fort Wayne. Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Tracy Clayton: I'm so sorry to hear that.
Ashley C. Ford: Stop, you know what?
Tracy Clayton: Oh sorry is my mic on? Hot mic. Hot mic.
Tenijah Hamilton: And to start off, I had a tweet of Tracy’s pulled up…
Tracy Clayton: Oh, receipts.
Tenijah Hamilton: You tweeted and I quote:
Tracy Clayton: Ok.
Tenijah Hamilton: I know more about birds than you do!
Tracy Clayton: [Gasp] I was feeling particularly cocky that day. I think it depends on whom I was talking to honestly. Like I know some stuff about birds.
Tenijah Hamilton: What is your favorite bird fact? I just, I need to know what, you know.
Tracy Clayton: My favorite bird fact is that crows will remember your face and if they do not like you, they will tell all the homies and the next time they see you, they’ll be like, yo, there you go, right there. That's the one I was talking about,you cross a crow once, ain't no recrossing said crow. There's none. And I like this fact because I do think it's so amazing that if, you know, crows like you and they love you, they'll bring you gifts. My number one goal in life is to befriend a crow and just get a gift. Like just one gift. I mean the gift of friendship of course-
Tenijah Hamilton: Yeah.
Tracy Clayton: It's more than enough if crows are listening, but to impress my friends, I really just like— bring me like a little, little shiny pebble, maybe.
Tenijah Hamilton: What about you, Ashley? What's your favorite bird fact?
Ashley C. Ford: Emus, in and of themselves, won a war against Australia. Australia went to war with emus and lost. They lost the war.
Tracy Clayton: Can I get like a synopsis of… like I know, I know that it happened, but I'm still like, what?
Ashley C. Ford: So basically what happened was that emus were increasing at a wild rate. And they were eating a lot of the rare vegetation at that time that was available to people. And so they were like, hey, we are going to cull the emu population so that they don't decimate our crops. And they went out to, uh, f*** with these emus, where the emus live and the emus said, I don't think so, and, uh, pushed the troops back. The troops had to retreat.
Tenijah Hamilton: They held the line.
Ashley C. Ford: They held the line. They couldn't get through the emus because the emus was like, they were on some sh*t that Australia was not ready for. And I tell you what, I'm not saying that it wouldn't be the same today. All I'm saying is Australia never tried it again.
Tenijah Hamilton: All it took was once.
Ashley C. Ford: They didn't go get stuff and come back. They said, we'll we'll figure it out.
Tracy Clayton: So Ashley you're in Indiana, correct?
Ashley C. Ford: Yes.
Tenijah Hamilton: Yes. And Tracy you're in New York.
Tracy Clayton: I am.
Tenijah Hamilton: And I'm really curious about how your birding experiences could be similar and different. Like these are two very different places, two different habitats, and also birding looks different in these two places. So what has your birding experience been like in Indiana? So for Ashley.
Ashley C. Ford: One of the birds that I like the most are cardinals. There are a lot of cardinals here.
Tracy Clayton: The official bird of Kentucky. Just wanted to say that.
Ashley C. Ford: Yes. Also Ball State University.
Tracy Clayton: You know what, but who's talking about who, who got here first, Ashley? Stealing people's state birds. It's messed up.
Ashley C. Ford: Uh, so anyway, like the good Hoosier I am, love a cardinal. Uh, there's also a lot of hawks here. And one of the things that I've been able to see here a couple of times that I forget happens is, uh, Bald Eagles. Cause like, I don't know why, in my head… they're extinct. In my head, they're all gone. And I know that that's not true, but I think when we were, like, kids, so many people were like, we gotta protect the Bald Eagle. Like, it'll go extinct that, like, in my head, like I never expect us to keep anything from going extinct. If they say it's about to go extinct, in my mind, I'm like, yeah, humans are — they're not going save ’em.
Tracy Clayton: You outta here. You outta here.
Ashley C. Ford: So the fact that we saved the Bald Eagle is wild to me, because I'll be like, oh s***, like, I'll be thinking, did I just see the last one? And I'm like, no, that's not —
Tenijah Hamilton: Do I have to memorialize this event?
Tracy Clayton: This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Bald Eagles are back. Oh my gosh.
Ashley C. Ford: They’re back.Tenijah Hamilton: So Tracy, in New York City and you know, lots of skyscrapers, there are some green spaces, but largely, I guess, what you would be doing is called urban birding. So what's your birding experience been like?
Tracy Clayton: So up here I've found that you have to be a lot more resourceful when it comes to your birding because I see pigeons and I see seagulls, and, in the morning I get to hear crows... that's kind of it in my neighborhood, you know? And like Ashley was saying, like, sometimes my mom who lives in Louisville will send me a picture, a bad picture, albeit, but a picture of like a hawk or a falcon in the backyard. And she's like, oh, I saw this today. And up here you really have to kind of make do, but that has increased my appreciation of pigeons so much more. I can sit and watch a flock of pigeons for I do not know how long. And these aren't like I'm not like, I'm back in like a park, right. Where there's like a flock of pigeons and like you're feeding them and all that stuff. I'm on like a street corner in like an armchair that for some reason has been placed outside on Flatbush Avenue. And I'm like watching pigeons, like, just flying around a bodega. And I'm just like, look at Francine, what's Francine doing. Francine, uh oh, somebody's coming back to the roost girl. What you gonna do? You know? So it's really made me appreciate what's immediately outside my window. And that's pigeons, which is great because there’s not enough pigeon love on the planet.
Tenijah Hamilton: Not enough. And I think you kind of underscored what is so important and what's kind of special about birdwatching because it's been, for so long, this very kind of elitist thing. So when you talk about, like, looking out your window, who's, who's hanging around out here, who's on my window sill. And you know, what, what are their dynamics? What's Petunia up to? Like you said, like that is super valid, absolutely, birdwatching, and I think one of the main ways we're going to get more people to do it.
Tracy Clayton: Right. Because when you think about it, it's just like, first of all, I think it's amazing that we share the planet with other animals anyway. It's just like, there are other beings that, like, breathe and they communicate. I just think that's so wild and it's like, how could you not be into that? How could you not want to just, like, sit and look at a frog and be like, yo, you're mad alive right now. Isn't this crazy? I share a space with a frog, you know? And pigeons and sparrows, like little brown sparrows hit me the exact same way. It's just like, oh my gosh, you also have a heart, it’s just behind some feathers. Like how? How? It's fascinating to me. And like, you can do that with literally any animal, any animal.
Tenijah Hamilton: Absolutely. Get to know them behind their feathers. That's the moral of this here story.
Pivoting from birds that we love, to Ashley, your scary bird list. And from what I, what I know of, is you think that everybody should have a personal scary bird list. Say more about that.
Ashley C. Ford: I mean, I don't know what else there is to say. Everybody, I think should have a bird list of at least five birds that you're scared of, because I think first of all, it's very important to humble yourself and to understand where you actually lie on the food chain. You know what I’m saying?
Tenijah Hamilton: That does make a lot of sense about why one should have a healthy fear.
Ashley C. Ford: You should have a healthy fear. You should know what's going on. You should know your surroundings. You should know your fears. Interrogating your fears is already good for you and interrogating the birds that you are personally afraid of. That's the key word there. When I talk about having a bird list, I always call it a personal bird list. Your bird list doesn't have to look like my bird list.
Tenijah Hamilton: Ashley’s personal list is Shoebill Storks, Emus, Harpy Eagles, Cassowaries, and Marabou Storks. And I gotta say those are some terrifying birds! Tracy’s also afraid of Harpy Eagles and Cassowaries, and the Philippine Eagle is “kind of too intense looking for her” even though she loves it. But for Tracy, one group of birds is the top of her scary bird list:
Tracy Clayton: Owls. First of all they just have a good PR agent. Like whatever firm they signed with hittin’ because people think that owls are smart. They're not even that smart! They're creepy. And when I say creepy, like imagine your dog eats an animal. Later on, he's going to throw it up encased in like a pebble. You gonna chill out with the dog?! You're not gonna take the dog to like a priest or a vet or something!? That's weird! It's not—
Tenijah Hamilton: A priest or a vet, those are your two options.
Tracy Clayton: One of the two is a good starting place, is what I think. Um, and also I just think like Snowy Owls, little Barn Owls, like y'all are cute, y'all are okay. A Great Horned Owl? Absolutely not. You look like the face of Satan himself.
Tenijah Hamilton: Wow. Ashley, is this a consensus? You seem like you are not messing with the owls either.
Ashley C. Ford: Because listen, Harry Potter is messing with us because we look at Hedwig and we thinking about that owl. And Hedwig is a great owl. Hedwig looks so friendly and fluffy and amazing, but she's absolutely right. When you look at a Great Horned Owl in the eyes, which I have, um, there's no sympathy there. There's no compassion. There is only a predator. If you wasn't so big, you'd be down my throat right now.
Tracy Clayton: That's right.
Ashley C. Ford: That's all it says. And that's okay. That's okay. That's your DNA. That's how you evolved. That's who you are. But it's not particularly comforting to me.
Tracy Clayton: It's not, it's not at all. Owls are evil and terrible. We don’t talk to them.
Tenijah Hamilton: That is the “too long; didn’t read.” So, Ashley, I'm wondering, like, what did your mentions look like? Cause I feel like people are probably like, no, like this bird is—
Ashley C. Ford: Actually, I'll tell you this, every ornithologist who saw my bird list was with me, Okay? They understood what I was talking about and they understood where I was coming from and why I was scared of these birds. Other people had their own personal reasons for like, oh, I got bit by a goose when I was five. And it's like, yeah, that's really sad. But like, geese are not on my bird list, cause I grew up in the Midwest. And yes, while those things are evil, I'm not scared of no goose and I've had to fight goose to get to work in the morning. Okay. Like that's the kind of life that I've lived. So a goose is not on my bird list. A goose could never see my bird list. Okay?
Tenijah Hamilton: You said, you said that just like a Ghostbuster. I ain't afraid of no goose. Like it was beautiful.
Ashley C. Ford: That's how I feel! Goosebusters 2, [singing].
Tenijah Hamilton: Oh my goodness.
Ashley C. Ford: Yeah.
Tenijah Hamilton: Okay. So this makes— all I'll say is this makes a lot of sense in why you make the distinction that it is a personal list. And it seems like it's just like, stay ready so you don't have to get ready.
Ashley C. Ford: That's basically it. That's basically it. You know, we all— there's a certain amount of danger that exists in the world, just in reality, and being aware of it doesn't have to be a scary, awful thing. You know, being aware of it, actually, to me, makes me less afraid. Okay, cause I don't have to worry about seeing something in my yard and I'm like, oh, that's a funny looking bird. That thing on its head looks like a fin. It's almost like a dinosaur. I wonder if maybe, hey cluck, cluck, come over here, buddy. I'll never do that. Cause I'm a look at it and I'm gonna go, that’s a cassowary, that's on my bird list. Lock all the doors.
Tenijah Hamilton: Nice, nice. Woo!
We’re gonna take a short break. And when we come back we’ll talk about being Black birders and how we fit into this big ol' bird world. Stick around.
[MIDROLL AD BREAK]
Tenijah Hamilton: I'm thinking a little bit about what has been my personal journey as I've become more of a bird person, how I've gotten here and what it's been like. And for me, the pandemic played a big hand in that, right? Nature became a little — it's so cheesy, but like a refuge and a little bit of a safe place, it felt like at the time. Like being able to watch these creatures and kind of engage with them in this way.
Ashley C. Ford: Sure.
Tenijah Hamilton: I'm wondering, especially seeing as you both have ties to New York City, how it felt to hear about the situation in Central Park with Christian Cooper and being harassed by this woman when he was out birdwatching. Because I know that for me, it pretty immediately made me kind of like recoil and be like this is obviously not a safe space for me. And um, I definitely am curious to how that felt, um, for you both in that time.
Ashley C. Ford: I'm confrontational. So I kinda, it made me want to like go to the park and set my s*** up and just be like, I wish somebody say something to me. I hope somebody do say something to me, I dare you! I dare you to say it. You would be picking the wrong one today. You know, that was my first feeling. And then my second feeling was just sadness. Cause you know, some of those things where, you know, it's like, we can't have nothing. He just wanted to go look at a bird. It's like, it was one of those things. It's like really? We can't have nothing. Just wanting to do regular, degular stuff. Not even regular-regular, like nerdy-regular.
Tracy Clayton: Right.
Ashley C. Ford: There's not even many of y'all out here! Like you in the minority and your group! How dare you treat me this way? Like that's how it feels. It's just, ugh.
Tracy Clayton: And we should be helping other! We both getting bullied at school.
Ashley C. Ford: We should be helping each other! It makes me mad how many opportunities we have to like work together, come together, have fun together, celebrate together, and somebody's always got to like throw a wrench in it, just because like, they can't accept the world outside of their own personal experience. Like, can you just stop? It made me really mad, sorry.
Tenijah Hamilton: Yeah. Yeah.
Ashley C. Ford: Clearly.
Tenijah Hamilton: Valid. Tracy, how about for you?
Tracy Clayton: Yeah. I think I went instantly to tired because, you know, this is the pandemic. We're all just trying to find like a physical space to kind of return to ourselves and find something that feels normal again, right? Like you can't — you can go outside, but not for real. You know, you can't go see your friend's house. You can't, you know, some of us couldn't even travel to go see our parents. It's just like, I just want one day of peace. I just want to be in a physical space that's not my apartment because I'm tired of this place, you know? And so often I think for Black and Brown people, escapism is limited depending on where you're trying to escape to, right? But it's like, what, what do you do in that case? You know what I mean? Like you go, you're going to go outside and I don't know, fight everybody in Central Park. Ashley might. Ashley's like I'm ready.
Tenijah Hamilton: Always need an Ashley on your team.
Tracy Clayton: eh. Always? I don't know. Anyway, but like, it makes you, it makes you like, okay, well, what do I do? You know, is this another space that I can't find refuge in? Is this a place that's worth me fighting for my own little corner, my own little sector. And if so, do I have the energy for it? And the older I get, the less energy I have, you know what I mean? So it happened and I was like, this is messed up. I hope the youth got the energy to fix this because —
Tenijah Hamilton: Yeah, that's real.
Tracy Clayton: — I got to lay down. I wanted to just kind of lay down and see what's up with Petunia, you know what I'm saying? Petunia still loves me, even if white birders in Central Park don't. Petunia do.
Tenijah Hamilton: Tracy, you went on Twitter to do like a 'Black Birder Roll-Call,' and that was a thread that gave me a lot of joy, uh, it was a lot of people who were like, I'm not a trained such and such, but I be noticing. And I thought that was great. So what was, like, what made you do that and did that give you a sense of joy?
Tracy Clayton: It did give me a sense of joy. I really like to remind people that we exist in every area of this earth, this planet, this society, many societies, you know? And sometimes you just want to remind people that, you know, like you're not the only person who is into this particular thing. It's too many people on the planet for you to be the only one ever. And I was just like, where my bird people at, basically? You know, like who is, who is Brown and likes birds, because I don't see none of y'all. Or I've only seen two of y'all and that's— I know that's not it. I know that's not enough. And it's just always fun to watch people see themselves. You know, even if it's online, even if it's on Twitter. But people like, oh my gosh. I live there too! And I love birds! Oh, you should go down to this place. And I'm just like, somewhere on this planet, someone is less alone now. And that makes me feel so good, you know?
Tenijah Hamilton: Yes. Yeah.
Ashley C. Ford: Hm.
Tenijah Hamilton: I remember listening to Tracy's Animal Corner back in the day and just casual conversation and somebody being really interested in something is enough to spark another person's curiosity. So I'm curious if you've ever thought of yourself as bird advocates, um, science communicators, or anything like that.
Tracy Clayton: I do now! I'm putting “science communicator” in all of my bios.
Tenijah Hamilton: You should. You deserve it!
Ashley C. Ford: I think of myself, I think, as more of like an enthusiast. I do hope to train a raven to be my best friend and to sit on my shoulder and like talk to me and warn me when there are ghosts in the room and stuff. Like, I do want that. It's enough just to talk about them and think about them and joke about them and be part of this fun little world of people who are charmed by these weird little animals.
Tracy Clayton: I agree. These are the kinds of bird conversations that are most fun to me, it's just like, if, if one of our former presidents you found out was a bird the whole time. He had the soul of a bird, what bird would Rutherford B. Hayes be? You know, like goofy stuff like that.
Ashley C. Ford: It's a titmouse.
Tracy Clayton: Bam, of course. Of course you would know. But, um, I think people expect that you have to have a level of knowledge or a level of training. “Oh, you like birds, what's the top five scientific genuses?” You know what I mean? Like, it's cool if you can do that. Most of us can't. But I mean, like, like having interest and curiosity and thoughts about birds, like, is enough.
[Inspiring, hopeful music with birdsong enters]
Ashley C. Ford: Thank you so much for having me. This has been so fun.
Tracy Clayton: I am so excited that this podcast and that you exist. Um, and just, I love Brown people liking birds!
Ashley C. Ford: I know, me too. It's so fun.
Tenijah Hamilton: I’ve come to think of having joy as an act of resistance. It can also be an accessible on-ramp to figuring out hard things. Hearing Tracy and Ashley talk about birds online in such a fun way laid the foundation for me to care about birds in the first place. And maybe, someone will hear this show, and in the middle of their rapturous laughter, I’m sure, they’ll start caring about birds too.
As we come to the end of this season, I want to reiterate what Tracy said — having interest, having curiosity, even just having thoughts about birds is enough to make a difference. Bring who you are to birding. Whether that is a birder who spies on nests out the window like me, or one who hikes grand mountains in national parks for the perfect shot, remember to always treat nature, and one another kindly. That’s truly it.
And I think there is only one way to end this season. Sam, take it away.
[The previous music has slowly faded away — in its place, spooky music fades in, mixed with the calls of Canada Geese. Suddenly, the lively riff from the Ghostbusters theme song begins. Sam, Ashley, and Chorus proceed to sing]
If you see a goose, and it’s on the prowl,
Who you gonna call?
If it’s chasing you down and it looks real fowl,
Who you gonna call?
Ashley C. Ford:
I ain’t afraid of no goose.
I ain’t afraid of no goose.
Tenijah Hamilton: Bring Birds Back is produced by Mark Bramhill and me, Tenijah Hamilton. Sam Johnson is our production assistant and the singer on this here Goosebusters Theme. Just incredible. We're edited by Oluwakemi Aladesuyi and Allison Behringer of Rough Cut Collective. Our fact checker is Conor Gearin. Our Content Director is Allison Wilson, and Nick Bayard is our Executive Director. Scoring is by Cosmo Sheldrake and Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Viki Merrick, Rehka Murthy, and the whole BirdNote Team - Bibi Baksh-Pabion, Jason McCue, Katie Meyer, Jessica Rugh Frantz, Zahiyah Frazier, and John Kessler. We’ll see you next time.
When it starts to hiss, and everyone jumps,
Who you gonna call?
If it’s got you scared, and you got goosebumps,
Who you gonna call?
Ashley C. Ford:
I ain’t afraid of no goose.
I ain’t afraid of no goose.
[Music ends; sound of Canada Geese in a field slowly fades away]
“Skylark” and “Dawn Chorus” by Cosmo Sheldrake
About guest Ashley C. Ford:
Ashley C. Ford’s New York Times best-selling memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, was published by Flatiron Books in June 2021. Ford is the former host of The Chronicles of Now podcast, co-host of The HBO companion podcast Lovecraft Country Radio. She currently lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with her husband, poet and fiction writer Kelly Stacy, and their chocolate lab Astro Renegade Ford-Stacy.
Ford has written or guest-edited for ELLE Magazine, Slate, Teen Vogue, New York Magazine, The New York Times, Domino, Cup of Jo, and various other web and print publications.
About guest Tracy Clayton:
Tracy Clayton is a writer, humorist, podcaster, and media personality from the West End of Louisville, Kentucky. In 2016, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, after accepting a job as a writer in Manhattan. Since then, she has made an indelible mark on the media industry, producing extraordinary, award-winning podcasts, cutting cultural criticism, and funny, uplifting content. Tracy has hosted approximately one hundred million thousand podcasts, including (but not limited to) Another Round, Netflix's Strong Black Legends, Mailchimp's Going Through It, and Back Issue by Pineapple Street Media. She likes bourbon, hates smoothies, and loves her mama.