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4 rules for birdwatching that serve as real talk about race

Drew Lanham knows a lot about birds. That makes him an expert on race, too.

4 rules for birdwatching that serve as real talk about race

When I first met Drew, he'd just given a keynote address about birds to a group of environmental educators.

Drew Lanham is a well-respected ornithologist, which means that he knows a lot about birds. During his keynote speech, he told stories, spun poetry, and did birdcalls — I've never seen a science talk filled with so much heart.

When he finished his speech, 500 people leapt to their feet with thundering applause.


Drew Lanham (right) is a talented birdwatcher and speaker. But he's got his eye trained on a lot more than birds.

Drew's talk may have been about birds, but his experience as a birder has made him an expert on something else, too: race.

He's one of a minority of black birders in America, an experience he describes by using a tool that bird watchers are familiar with: a range map.

Bird watchers use range maps to track the distribution of species of birds. But Drew's personal range map is often more complicated than the ones he studies in the wild.

Being black constantly influences where he does and doesn't belong on the range map, Drew says. He's exhausted by how often these rules switch.

That's why Drew came up with a rule book of his own: The Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.

Drew and I made his rule book into a video for BirdNote. And generally, when I play this video for people, they laugh. At first.

Then they realize how much Drew's words sting.

Drew practices his bird calls during our filming session.

Take, for example, Drew's first rule about the essential items you need for birding.

You need a pair of binoculars, a spotting scope, and a field guide, he says.

And if you're black, you're going to need two or three forms of ID."

Or rule #2: No matter the temperature, Drew advises black birders to “never wear a hoodie. Ever."

The next rule is one of encouragement: “Black birds are your birds."

These birds — everything from grackles to crows to red-winged blackbirds — are largely maligned.


“Any bird that's black," Drew says, “is my bird."

And finally: “Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder."

While we were filming, a white pickup truck rolled up next to us. Another black man, James Wright, leaned out the window and asked if we'd seen the snowy owl. Drew couldn't believe his luck.

On Facebook that day, Drew wrote, “What are the chances of two black birders meeting up when I'm doing a film about the rarity of black birders?"

Drew and I made that video four months ago.

When I got in touch with Drew this month to tell him I was writing about him again, the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, had just happened.

Drew, who works as an ecologist at Clemson University (on the other side of the state), wrote me back:

For Drew, birds are a salve. They always have been.

I saw a recent update of his on Facebook and it gave me some hope: He was in northern Wisconsin on the hunt for the aurora borealis — evidence that even in darkness, there are still ways to find light.

Watch Drew's entire video guide here:

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
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