Photo by Bisakha Datta

9 Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher

Lower your binoculars. See bird and person in the full context of their being, feathers or skin. We all share the same air, same water, same earth, and same fate in the end. Don’t just list and be done. 

Leave your assumptions behind. Don’t make snap ID decisions on birds or humans. A murmuration wheeling across a purpling sky may appear to be a single being but is in fact a collection of countless individuals in one movement. Admire the whole. Respect the one. 

List your privileges. Know your range. Can you wander like a warbler without wondering who’s watching you with suspicion? 

Be bold. Speak up. Identify racism as you would call out a crow among snow buntings. Silence lets the oppression grow unchecked. 

Let history guide you. John James Audubon didn’t care about Black human lives. Harriet Tubman knew the woods and wetlands well—she even used an owl call to identify herself to freedom-seeking souls. Let her be your wild-bird liberty-loving hero. 

Form your own taxonomic committee. A bird tagged with some slave owner’s name had an identity long before that person claimed it for their ego’s sake. Goodbye, Clark’s nutcracker. So long, Bachman’s sparrow. Let the birds speak for themselves. Try renaming by beak size or behavior, song sound, habitat ties, or color. 

Dismantle offensive monuments. Watch the golden eagle soar over Mount Rushmore and think of what was stolen, what once rose there naturally sacred before chisels made men into gods. See the peregrine falcon circling Georgia’s Stone Mountain, the world’s largest shrine to white supremacy, then imagine that eyesore free of the treasonous rebels marring its granite face. Understand the power of exclusion. 

See color. It’s not recognizing a person’s blackness or brownness that’s the sin but using that different hue as leverage for oppression. Painted buntings don’t want to be plain. Black birds aren’t all the same. Neither are Black human beings. Respect and celebrate differences. Inclusion is protest. 

Keep your personal feel guide close. Equity is a hard bird to find. Diligently search for it in places with common ground. Listen intently to the stories of others, just as you would strain, in the dim dawn hours, to discern the lisps of migratory birds overhead. Discomfort is growth. 


J. Drew Lanham is an author, poet, professor, and bird adorer living in Seneca, South Carolina. He is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and Sparrow Envy: Poems. His essays have appeared in Best American Essays, Vanity Fair, Oxford American, Terrain, Newsweek, and elsewhere. 


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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. I liked this. Then I read it out loud. I love it.

  2. I love this piece. My feel guide, wow. And yes, discomfort is growth. I loved Drew’s Rules for the Black Birder, not because I love the content but because it was truth spoken in a way that made the awkward truths obvious to those of us who are white and not under the same unrelenting scrutiny and suspicion. And now this, an invitation in 9 parts. What we can do, start to do, try to do, to make a difference in ourselves, what I can do, start to do, try to in to make a difference in my self, so that I can be different in the world. Than you Drew. And thank you Orion.

  3. Dr. J. Drew Lanham is an inspiration and role model for me. I had the honor of hearing him speak at the National Biology Teachers Association meeting that was held in Nashville, TN. What a transforming experience that was! His address, and other confirming events with the GLOBE Program that happened around the same time, gave me the confidence to pursue a new path. Thank you, Dr. Drew!

  4. Great to hear praise for the mountain in all its perfection, before Gutsohn. Who walked the stone ridges where he placed roads, High Ridge Road and Long Ridge Road in Stamford and Greenwich, CT. We admire the scenic highway only because of our ignorance of the perfect footpaths among stone ridges where Gutsohn chose to locate the roads, seeking out the hardness of stone before obliterating it for a bitumin road with ditches.

  5. I like this piece for all that it can offer us beyond “black and white.” James Baldwin reminds us of “the disquieting complexity of ourselves,” and how knowledge of the details of our lives and the lives of those we view and treat as “other,” might “menace” us in our comfortable categorizations of people’s lives—especially marginalized black, brown and poor white people. William Stafford reminds us that if we don’t know the kind of person that each of us is, “a pattern that others made may prevail in the world.” It seems to me that much of what we are witnessing and experiencing today reflects such a pattern—a narrative that is not of our own making and that distracts us from deeper work and possibilities, distracts us from the hard work of justice and healing. Like my experiences as a bird watching Black person surrounded by black, brown and white people who share a place, but who do not yet really know each other, this piece reminds me how important it is to pause and to listen for the silences, the timbre of unvoiced stories and song, to feel for the shape that they take on the edges of our hearing and seeing, stories that wait to see if it’s safe to come out and to offer a different pattern and another way.

  6. The deep pain, politics and poetry in these nine Rules are so moving and enriching for both the experienced ornithologists as well as beginners. It is important to look for the hard birds of equity and respect and celebrate differences. Thank you dear Lanham for sharing your personal revelations in such an enchanting piece of poetic prose.

  7. I have been reminded again of the intense power in poetic speech to speak truth. . What normal prose may say in thousands of words, Dr. lanham says in 9 cryptic stanzas. Thank you, Sir!

  8. I have taken these nine rules into my heart and will hold them there when I walk, and watch, and listen.
    Also, I have read Dr. Lanham’s book several times,: “The Home Place”. It is so good.
    With gratitude and wishes for Peace for all Beings,

  9. I have taken these nine rules into my heart and will hold them there when I walk, and watch, and listen.
    Also, I have read Dr. Lanham’s book several times,: “The Home Place”. It is so good.
    With gratitude and wishes for Peace and Justice for All Beings,

  10. I am somewhat embarrassed to say it, but J D Lanham is new to my reading. I fell in love with him immediately. He intends to paint pictures with his words and he certainly succeeds. His writing reminds me of my years in the WV hills. He connects life with the environment, people with people, and makes it clear to whom we, as a nation, owe a huge debt for all that we have. The more people who read his work the better.

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