9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher

1. Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder. Yes, there are only two of you at the bird festival. Yes, you’re wearing a name tag and are six inches taller than he is. Yes, you will be called by his name at least half a dozen times by supposedly observant people who can distinguish gull molts in a blizzard.

2. Carry your binoculars — and three forms of identification — at all times. You’ll need the binoculars to pick that tufted duck out of the flock of scaup and ring-necks. You’ll need the photo ID to convince the cops, FBI, Homeland Security, and the flashlight-toting security guard that you’re not a terrorist or escaped convict.

3. Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.

4. Nocturnal birding is a no-no. Yeah, so you’re chasing that once-in-a-lifetime rare owl from Outer Mongolia that’s blowing up your twitter alert. You’re a black man sneaking around in the nether regions of a suburban park — at dusk, with a spotting scope. Guess what? You’re going to have some prolonged conversations with the authorities. Even if you look like Forest Whitaker — especially if you look like Forest Whitaker.

5. Black birds — any black birds — are your birds. The often-overlooked blackbirds, family Icteridae, are declining across the board. Then there are the other birds that just happen to be black — crows and their kin are among the smartest things with feathers and wings. They’re largely ignored because of their ubiquity and often persecuted because of stereotype and misunderstanding. Sounds like profiling to me.

6. The official word for an African American in cryptic clothing — camo or otherwise — is incognegro. You are a rare bird, easy to see but invisible just the same. Until you snap off the identification of some confusing fall warbler by chip note as it flies overhead at midnight, or a juvie molting shorebird in heavy fog, you will just be a token.

7. Want to see the jaws of blue-blooded birders drop faster than a northern gannet into a shoal of shad? Tell them John James Audubon, the patron saint of American ornithology, had some black blood coursing through his veins. Old JJ’s mom was likely part Haitian. Hey, if we can claim Tiger Woods . . .

8. Use what’s left of your black-president momentum on the largely liberal birder crowd to step to the front of the spotting-scope line to view that wayward smew that wandered into U.S. waters from Eurasia. Tell them you’re down with Barack, and they’ll move even more to the left to let you look at the doomed duck. After all, you stand about as much of a chance of seeing a smew again as you do of seeing another black president.

9. You’re an endangered species — extinction looms. You know all the black birders like siblings and can count them on two hands. You’re afraid to have lunch with them all because a single catastrophe could wipe the species from the face of the earth. There’s talk and posturing about diversifying the hobby, but the money is not where the mouths are. People buy binoculars that would fund the economy of a small Caribbean island — where, coincidentally, lots of neotropical migratory birds winter, and where local people of color might contribute to their conservation if more birders cared about more than counting birds.

A native of Edgefield, South Carolina, J. Drew Lanham is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize, and was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal. He is a birder, naturalist, and hunter-conservationist who has published essays and poetry in publications including OrionAudubonFlycatcher, and Wilderness, and in several anthologies, including The Colors of NatureState of the HeartBartram’s Living Legacy, and Carolina Writers at Home. An Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University, he and his family live in the Upstate of South Carolina, a soaring hawk’s downhill glide from the southern Appalachian escarpment that the Cherokee once called the Blue Wall.


  1. This was awesome! A friendly amendment…

    5b: Other black birds. Cormorants, those black diving birds that eat fish, are the subjects of federal depredation orders from Michigan to Mississippi. Loons, those speckled diving birds that eat fish, grace the back of Canadian currency and the Minnesota state flag. Vultures, those black birds that eat dead road-killed ‘possums, are widely reviled, whereas bald eagles, their white-headed relatives that eat dead floating carp, are our national bird. Go figure.

  2. It’s just as bad if you’re a young Hispanic birder with visible tattoos and dreads!

  3. Drew, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe a little of both?

  4. Does anyone have any thoughts about how birding can be introduced to more African Americans and Hispanics?

  5. Thank you for this article! Dan, starting with urban elementary students and “Backyard Birds” is a great place to begin! Pricey binos are the biggest obstacle, but donations are helpful and sometimes local optics shops have specials for educational purposes. Have each child become an “expert” on one bird (seasonal movements, food, habitat, behavior) and you’ll have immediate personal investment and enthusiasm.

  6. Alas too true. As a young birder, people some attention to the fact I might be up to no good. Now that I am old and fat, the cops ask me to ID birds. Find an old, fat, white, gray-haired broad and you will can ride their coat tails of anonymity.
    Sorry, so very sorry, that people see nothing but stereotypes with their ill-fitting myopic glasses.

  7. Drew,

    Thank you for these 9 Rules… Like Barb Padgett, I’m not sure if I should be laughing at the injustice you describe.

    Your writing is humorous and your message is powerful. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Thank you, drew, for using your humor and intellect to tell it like it is.
    You are a great ambassador for birding and do birders of color.

  9. As a young mexican-american birder, I think this list is a valuable one to have out there. I also run a nature-centric after-school in my inner-city high school and I hope that my students keep engaging in nature despite the challenges they face. Thanks for the list and the great conversation starter!

  10. Drew, your piece was a real blast. I hope we can bird together again sometime – it’s been a while. Best wishes as always.

    Alan Contreras

  11. I really don’t know how to react to this. I’m mostly disappointed that this attempt to draw attention to the lack of diversity in the birding world is sarcastic, sad, and largely negative, even if it’s true (which it apparently is from the author’s perspective). Is this kind of approach supposed to motivate people to encourage diversity in birding? Or is it simply to get an already convinced audience to cluck their tongues?

  12. @ LabsforLife: “even if it’s true?” ” . . . which it apparently is from the author’s perspective?” Condescend much?

    Perhaps “this kind of approach” is best thought of as a wake-up call. Albeit a very funny one.

  13. Clever writer. I just heard the author interviewed on NPR, and and curiosity brought me here. There is truth in Drew’s observations. He is a master of the “double meaning” 🙂

  14. So glad you said these things! I have always felt that way about black birds.
    There is more to say about human attitudes toward various species as they parallel unconscious racial
    Thank you for beginning the light.

  15. I’m a white man, been birding since 1980. For the moment all I can say is…”I’m so sorry.” For a black man – America is one big cross to bear.

  16. I heard Mr. Lanham’s interview on NPR and came here to read it. Being a newbie to birdwatching I never thought about it from that point of view-but sadly, it makes sense. Too bad foolish things get in the way of meeting people that would greatly enrich our lives.

  17. Drew I burst out laughing at your 9 rules- except that they are too true. I love crows, if only for their “irreverance” cawing loud from on high-and I caw! Back. What’s that crazy old white lady doing? But I’ve also spent 30 yrs trying to teach people about bats, so…

  18. I too heard the interview last night on NPR and shared a link with my eagle watching friends as soon as I got home. The proliferation of cams – many of which are being used in elementary schools as a teaching tool – may help introduce the next generation to the wonders of the bird world – be those children white, brown, black or yellow. Hopefully we can open up all their eyes.

  19. I heard the story yesterday too–great story. Unfortunately science education is woefully underfunded and neglected in too many communities of color. Why do we see so few people of color visiting our national parks? Why do so few become environmental activists, even though people of color are disproportionately victimized by environmental injustice? Too often I’ve heard students of color express doubts about climate change. I love birds, and wish that others who love them were as diverse as the birds themselves.

  20. Very funny. Best thing I’ve read in a while.

  21. So I read this, and the very next day, whilst chasing a reported Red Phalarope, the first birder I run into is black. We were driving in opposite directions around the lagoon, and rolled down our driver’s side windows to converse. (He, of course, was not at all surprised to find a retirement-age white lady in the other car…)

    And of course, this article is the first thing I think of, and I really want to share it with him because I’m sure he’d appreciate it as only an insider can; but my white liberal guilt won’t let me; I’m afraid of sounding like, “Hi, I notice you’re black…”

    So we commiserated on not finding the bird (which happily did show up some time later), then went on our separate ways…

    This article seems to be being linked to in various places around the bird community, so hopefully those who need to see it (and those who would love the humor along with the message, two sets which I’m sure overlap substantially) will do so.

  22. I love this and it is so true! Another birder, Diane Tannenbaum was once mistaken for me during a Cape May Spring weekend. I was trying to reach 400, and wanted Eastern Screech Owl to be that milestone bird. People kept asking Diane if she had gotten her 400th bird yet. She laughed when telling me, she wanted to say “no, that’s the other black birder”. Incidentally, she too was married to a white guy, and had a similar hairstyle. We often joked that we would start a new birding club called BIRDS (birding interracial DINKS) DINKS stands for dual income no kids.
    Just wanted to share.

  23. Who is responsible for introducing children, no matter their color or race, to nature? That’s where it all begins. The author missed the mark here and is pointing his finger of blame in the wrong direction. It starts at home.
    It’s a shame that Orion chose the ‘let’s be politically correct’ road and pubished this nonsence. If this becomes a trend, I will certainly reconsider my paid subscription in the future.

  24. To desertsun–if those of us born into traditionally privileged ethnic groups do not do what we can to address the inequalities that have arisen in historically disenfranchised groups, it reflects on us, not them.

  25. I am not sure whether desertsun is speaking from ignorance or some nastier place.
    Frightening and sad to see such comments arise from my beloved colleagues. I hold us all to a high standard of appreciation of the world.

  26. Is this supposed to be funny? I find this article to be disgustingly racist!

  27. Seriously, I cannot believe so many comments here think this article is okay.

    “The official word for an African American in cryptic clothing—camo or otherwise—is incognegro.”

    This is OFFENSIVE! Not HUMOR!

  28. Do I have to be black to be offended? I teach in an urban school district. I don’t know a single black person who wouldn’t find this offensive.

  29. My friends told me I shouldn’t be upset because this article was written as satire. It makes me sad to think that my 4th graders who can identify birds, some even by their calls, will have to deal with this type of profiling.

    I don’t apologize for overreacting.

  30. Actually, the sad thing is that your 4th graders may some day experience what the author has experienced. The attitudes behind THAT represent the salient profiling, here.

  31. Ms Lenahan, I teach ethnic studies to students of color, most of whom come from working-class backgrounds, many in Seattle. I am Asian American myself, and I can honestly say that my students of color would find the essay hilarious, if they know birding culture. Among ourselves we speak in ways that our white liberal friends might not get, using the language of racism humorously to try to deal with it. Professor Lanham’s essay is only a very mild version of this. Glenn Beck can’t understand why he can’t use the “n” word since young black folks use it all the time among themselves. I’ll bet your students would actually find Professor Lanham’s short piece funny, if they also have any understanding of birding culture. (That’s an important “if,” since his main point is that people of color have been excluded from birding.) I intend to use it in one of my classes today, and I can almost guarantee that my students of color will see its point and find it amusing, if they know birding culture. Even if they don’t, they still won’t find his piece offensive. I am delighted to see that you are sensitive to racial discourse, as I wish more of our white friends were. But remember that Dave Chappelle left his TV show because he was afraid that his sympathetic white fans weren’t getting his point. Professor Lanham surely must have known that many sympathetic white readers would miss his point too. I think his essay is great, and will use it in future classes. It’s short and simple enough that you may want to try it too.

  32. While certainly there is regret that this rings true, it is genuinely funny and enlightening. For those who find it offensive, lighten up! Surely the best route to a better world is warm, humorous, candid conversation,and sharing a wry laugh

  33. Mary Lenahan – I am an African-American woman birder (since childhood!) and I had to hold in my laughter when got to the word “incognegro.” Lighten up.

  34. Lovely voice about a difficult topic. As a white guy who spent some time in the military in the south and someone who hung out with native Americans and heard ‘white guy’ jokes I thought I had … understanding. Then I read Madness at the Gates of the City by Barry Spector and learned how little I knew.
    We seem to have a cultural basis of ‘othering’ as I learned and this ‘other line’ is like a knife. It is round and smooth from one side (so what’s the problem?), and is sharp and will cut from the other. I love a voice that can bring humor into such dire and common misunderstanding. That is what gave Gandhi much of his gift.

    As we enter veterans day at a rate on one veteran suicide a day, and while we send black drones across the world with their unheavenly gifts, I recall we have a constitutional scholar as leader of a country that has not declared war during the life-time of this now retired bird.

    How I wish I had the humor to make folks laugh and ponder that. What superb writing drew us here. Thank You.

  35. “..you stand about as much of a chance of seeing a smew again as you do of seeing another black president.”

    Drew. Excellent read. You are the first person I’ve read willing to break the silence relative to the above observation.

    Nice touch of foreshadowing with your first sentence of #8.

    Thanks to Orion for publishing this material. Well done!

  36. I loved the way the crowd moved “even more to the left.” 😀

  37. Dear Black Birdwatcher,
    Thanks for the insights & especially your prose with a “touch” of humor!
    May you liberate other black birders!
    Big Bird hugs,

  38. I am SO white… and for the most part so is everyone else I meet outdoors in a wide variety of activities. I get extremely excited when I see anyone of color out in nature– hiking, fishing, biking, boating (never have met you two birders)– that I wanna break out singing “this land is your land.” I want to hug them and tell them how GLAD I am to see them. And that excitement of mine makes me wistful the way the verisimilitude of your humor does. Thank you for the reality check and for the hope that that reality may shift.

  39. Gosh, guess I am not erudite enough to appreciate this essay. For the folks beating up on the woman who doesn’t find it funny, give her a break, OK? It’s a free country…kind of.

  40. John Streamas,
    I teach fourth grade kids, not college students. No, they wouldn’t understand the nature of the piece; they are 9 years old and take most things literally.

    And for those of you who think I should lighten up, maybe you should try a little acceptance yourself.

  41. Thanks for this, Drew. It’s funny, except that it’s not. Would this be black humor, then?

  42. Dr. Drew is one of my heroes. I had the distinct pleasure of hearing his completely honest and insightful comments via a major speech in Tucson, AZ in August, and again at the third Focus On Diversity Conference in McAllen, TX earlier this week. His is a high quality voice that deserves continuous nationwide exposure!!!

  43. Drew,

    When I find a writer with a writer’s voice – not all who put words on page or screen have such a voice – I search for more of their sound and sayings.

    I found yours.

    ” We stand not in the midst of wilderness here or on an abandoned farm. No, this is the place of human doing—bricks and mortar and metal–triumphs and failures. We gather in the shadows of what remains–towering chimneys that no longer belch smothering smoke but invite twittering chimney swifts from tropical Peru to stay awhile. ”

    Drew we need your voice. There is Wendell Berry and Anne Dillard. Loren Eiseley has moved beyond “The Immense Journey.”

    Drew there is room. Make time to say it. It needs to be heard.

  44. Drew, your comments made me laugh but they are so very true it hurts. Ditto to Rangel’s comments about Hispanics in the field. If any of you are teachers out there, there are two marvelous books, Lost Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and The Alphabet of the Trees edited by McEwen and Statman. Both are great tools for introducing nature to students. Let’s get more of all kinds of children out there so Drew won’t be so endangered!

  45. Drew, your comments made me laugh but they are so very true it hurts. Ditto to Rangel’s comments about Hispanics in the field. If any of you are teachers out there, there are two marvelous books, Lost Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and The Alphabet of the Trees edited by McEwen and Statman. Both are great tools for introducing nature to students. Let’s get more of all kinds of children out there so Drew and others won’t be so endangered!

  46. I came to Orion’s homepage intending to get a subscription for a friend and bumped into Dr. Lanham’s essay. While it is mildly humorous, it is hard to find anything that would prompt the hilarity described by some commenters. At the same time, the suggestion that those who took offense should lighten up is undoubtedly good advice, although Dr. Lanham certainly intended to give offense, albeit very gently. Maybe what bothered some people is that stereotyping is not a one way street. It seems very likely that had Dr. Lanham paid close attention to those white birding colleagues who confused him with the other black birder, he’d have discovered that they had even more trouble correctly identifying the white birders they had just met that day.

    I read but did not hear the NPR interview so did not get the cues one might from hearing the tone of voice. Dr. Lanham’s Wild and in Color blog and his Flycatcher ‘zine also deal with the issue of race and do so gently and with humor and compassion. Probably, were I in Dr. Lanham’s shoes, the chip on my shoulder would be much larger. Still, whether it is the president or Dr. Lanham, if one has a forum it is a good idea to clearly distinguish between personal impressions and fact.

  47. I live in a suburb of Atlanta–and ethnically speaking neither black or white. I remember back in 1993 when I started working with local environmental issues. I kept hearing that “people of color” (my preferred usage) were just not involved enough. My response then and now is: we have always been involved, but we just don’t make a lot of noise about it. How do you think Black folks made it through slavery until this day? They HAD to be involved, conscious and aware–just not in the same way as the majority population.

    I have been bird watching for at least 25 years and I choose to do so on my own. And yes, I do own a pair of binoculars. And there are plenty of us out there just like me.

  48. I like Drew Lanham’s sense of humor. I am actually a butterflyer – not a birder but the same rules might apply to our nature pursuit. I have just returned from The Texas Butterfly Festival in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Following it, in the same area, there was a big birding festival. We would see the birders in all the same parks we went to. It was the same story – African Americans & Hispanics were, for the most part, nowhere to be seen. It makes me sad that they are missing out on so much of the beauty in nature.

  49. Brilliant observations by a trained observer that speak volumes.

    Mr Lanham,
    I am in the formative stages of a project on race relations in the US. Would you be willing to have a brief conversation?

    Sincerely – Michael L Maliner

  50. It’s too true – there are not enough blacks or other minorities involved with birding and nature-watching. We can take comfort in some small gains – did you know that the ornithologist at Harvard University is black? Check out my web page: http://www.oeb.harvard.edu/faculty/edwards/

    Also, a guy named Dave Magpiong is
    President of Fledging Birders Institute, an organization promoting diversity in birding. He can be reached at 856-905-1232 or check out http://fledgingbirders.org/

  51. I thought I was the only one To my great delight, I heard about you on the radio. Thank you.

  52. Hilarious and mostly rings true for me as a Filipino-American birder and general outdoor enthusiast and advocate. I wish I had more role models growing up but I was able to get into birding as an adult.Wearing the right hoodie helps, like a Patagucci.Of course, when people see me lurking around, they think I’m going to mow their lawns. This has happened!

  53. A: i don’t understand why you cant birdwatcher in a hoodie or go at night it masks no sense.

    C:what if it is raining and you don’t wont to get your are there is a rare bird and it is night

    E:this is not a very informational article

  54. Thank You for this article. I am so glad that I am not alone. I am black and I love birds and nature. Thank goodness for the natural world – the place where you find true sanity.

  55. This article is hilarious. Yeah, I get mistaken for the “other black birder” all the time. Sigh… glad we can laugh about it. 🙂

  56. Thanks for sharing the hilarious perspective on how to handle and enjoy hiking, birding, playing music, or being involved in just about any other activity where you find yourself being the “only one.”

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