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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.

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:

Science

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There is no shortage of dire news about the state of modern recycling. Most recently, this NPR article shared the jaw-dropping statistic that about 5% of all plastics produced get recycled, meaning the rest of it ends up in landfills. While the underlying concerns here are sound, I worry that the public narrative around recycling has gotten so pessimistic that it will make people give up on it entirely instead of seeing the opportunities to improve it. What if instead of focusing on what isn’t working, we looked at these news stories as an invitation to do better?

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During the time it took for the unsuspecting mother to dig for loose change, the "stranded" stranger, Zach, introduced himself and asked if the duo were from Philly. Once they said they were from the area, he then inquired if they were Eagles fans...the football team, not the birds. "You ever been to an Eagles game?" Zach asked.

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Native Siberian shares what daily life entails in the coldest village on Earth

See how the people of Yakutia, Siberia take showers, do laundry, go to school and more in minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit.

A man in the Yakutia region of Siberia takes an ice bath in minus 50 degrees Celsius.

For most of us, waking up to a temperature of minus 50 degrees would spell catastrophe. Normal life would come to a screeching halt, we'd be scrambling to deal with frozen pipes and power outages, school and work would be canceled and weather warnings would tell us not to venture outside due to frostbite risk.

But in the Yakutia region of Siberia, that's just an average winter day where life goes on as usual.

When you live in the coldest inhabited area on Earth, your entire life is arranged around dealing with ridiculously cold temperatures. Villages don't have running water because freezing pipes wouldn't allow for water treatment. Kids go to school unless the temp drops below minus 55 degrees Celsius (which is then considered dangerous). Showering involves spending hours stoking a fire in the bathhouse to create a steamy, warm room.

Native Siberian Kiun B. has created a series of documentary short films detailing what daily life is like in Yakutia's frigid winters. She was born and raised in Yakutsk, Siberia, widely recognized as the coldest city on Earth, where average winter temperatures hover around minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. As seen in her videos, smaller villages in the Yakutia region regularly dip down into the negative 50s, with the lowest recorded temp in the Yakut village of Oymayakon reaching a mindblowing minus 96 degrees Fahrenheit.

The popularity of Kiun's YouTube channel demonstrates how curious people are about life in such harsh conditions, as her videos have been viewed by tens of millions of people in the past year alone.

Check out this video detailing a day in the life of a family in a Yakutia village.

Can you imagine going out to use an outhouse in minus 40 degrees? Oof.

Another of Kiun's videos goes into more detail about how people shower and do laundry in the region. You might assume they wouldn't line-dry their laundry outdoors, but they do.

Watch:

What do people wear to protect themselves from the negative temperatures? Frostbite is a real risk, so it's important to have the right kinds of clothing and outdoor gear to stay safe and relatively comfortable.

Kiun shared some frigid fashion norms from Yakutsk, which include traditional fur hats and boots as well as lots of layers and down jackets.

However, there are some Yakut folks who see the cold as something to embrace. For instance, this man takes an ice bath out in the elements as a morning ritual. It's something he has worked up to—definitely not something to try on your own during a cold snap—but it still has to be painful.

(Seriously, please don't try this at home.)

The way humans have learned to adapt to drastically different environments, from the sweltering tropics to the Arctic tundra, is incredible, and it's fascinating to get a close-up look at how people make life work in those extremes. Thank you, Kiun B., for giving us a glimpse of what it's like to experience life in the dead of winter in the world's coldest inhabited places.

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