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. 


Learn More: 

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.

  11. I enjoy the way in which Lanham asks us to take a step back from the reality we are used to, and the way Lanham addresses the importance of checking your lens when evaluating your perception of others, preconceived bias, and our understanding of ourselves. I love that Lanham uses his passion as a medium to convey his thoughts and educate others who don’t necessarily understand what it feels like to be living as a minority member, using bird watching as a universal form of expression. There is power in recognizing each other’s differences, not as a way of creating separation, but as a way of acknowledging another’s struggle and their history. The amount of things one person can control is minimal, but you have the power to change your own views and perspectives, in the hope that this will spark change in others. Even the simple quote such as, “Can you wander like a warbler without wondering who’s watching you with suspicion?” grounds us in our significant differences and offers ideas of necessary empathy.

  12. J. Drew Lanham’s list of rules is moving to say the least. His beautiful imagery, personification of nature, and connection of human life to the environment should be praised. Lanham’s list allows for people to consider how the history of racial oppression can follow them routinely, even in birdwatching, throughout history because of the systems embedded in our country. He uses the act of bird watching as a facilitator of discussion of the ways in which racial injustice is perpetuated within the environmental movement and society as a whole which makes his writing all the more powerful and accessible. His call to action for white folks to not only be aware of privilege but to work to address and dismantle the Systems that gave them privilege in the first place, will help people realize they owe it to one another to tear this structure apart. Lanham explains that this process is as simple as turning our everyday activity- like bird watching – into something more meaningful, and even an opportunity for self-reflection and unlearning racism.

  13. J. Drew Lanham beautifully pushes the boundary that exists between the ephemeral and aesthetic nature writing genre and the political and technical genre of environmental writing. Lanham stresses that birdwatching is never entirely an individual action, but that it is informed by identity. The poetic prose teaches people not only about birdwatching and appreciation of nature, but also about racism and the oppressive history of our country. While this piece is aimed at the ornithological community specifically, it can be put in the context of the outdoors community as a whole, which is a community deeply rooted in privilege, accessibility issues, and environmental injustice. This versatility makes this piece all the more important. The piece of literature acknowledges the interconnectedness of the current environmental struggles with anti-racist and decolonial struggles. Beyond being a beautifully important piece, Lanham provides tangible steps for readers to acknowledge their privileges and move forward in birdwatching and other environmental spaces in an anti-racist way, and shows the urgency of doing so. Many writers vie to accomplish the same thing as Lanham does here, but with 9 Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher the reader walks away with steps that can immediately applied in their own lives to takes steps towards a more equitable and anti-racist society. Beautifully written and with noble purpose, Lanham really knocked this piece of art and social dialogue out of the park.

  14. This list is a crucial guide for people who do not have personal experience of being discriminated against because of their racial identity. The lessons brought up on the list are extremely important. Mount Rushmore, for example, may be a monument of national pride for some, but for others, it is a constant reminder of the oppression and genocides that indigenous communities went through when western settlers forced them out of their land. We need to dismantle these monuments, at least in our minds, because they are a terrible scar to so many people, and they go against efforts to encourage an appreciation for diversity. . Lanham calls for recognition of diversity in birds and people, stating that “all blackbirds are not the same.” It is much easier to understand a lot of things if you look from a different perspective, in this case looking at different species of birds and how different they are in the traits they hold. This piece of writing gives a great point of view to people who have trouble understanding how birdwatching is more than just an activity, it is a way of spotting racisms as well as learning to appreciate the diversity within birds and the diversity within people. Landham’s rules for birdwatching offers everyone the idea that birdwatching isn’t just an outdoor experience but as an opportunity to appreciate diversity in nature and people.

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