Art by Peter Hayman and Norman Arlott

Hope and Feathers

A crisis in birder identification

Africa is a place we all have in common. It is the widely acknowledged cradle of humankind, as most anthropologists agree that our hominid ancestors likely evolved there. So an Evolutionary Eve, mother to all of us regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality, likely padded across the African plains.

Given this multimillion-year perspective, I or anyone else should’ve been awestruck at the prospect of treading the same ground as some australopithecine grandparent. But that was not necessarily the case. Twenty-one of us, including a dozen or so students and a handful of older lifelong learners, were “sacrificing” spring break to study the wildlife ecology of the North Cape. I was along as the coleader, the trip ornithologist, the designated birder. Professionally, I was well equipped to do the job. Cleverly disguising myself as a wildlife ecology professor, I’ve gamed the system, teaching field ornithology and researching bird habitat relationships, at times going to “work” to do things most folks only find time to do on vacation. For the wildlife work I do, the trip promised to be a dream experience. For the black man that I am, the promises were less certain.

Most black Americans would probably agree that there is something visceral about visiting the African supercontinent. It is a chance to get a little closer to the place from whence many of our ancestors were likely kidnapped and spirited away to places on the other side of the world that they were forced to call home. I know from other black people who’ve been to sub-Saharan Africa that the first trip “back” is often billed as nothing short of a life-changing pilgrimage to the place that provides the linkage between who we are and were.

Read J. Drew Lanham and others in Spark Birds, Orion’s newest anthology. 

Now it’s true that South Africa played little if any role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and my ancestors probably came from somewhere in West Africa—maybe Nigeria or Ghana—far north of our southerly destination. But as an African-American who’d be stepping onto the same continent, I’d be one ocean closer to the connection—standing on the same tectonic plates as people whom I might rightly call relatives. There was another unavoidable piece of history as well: South Africa’s entrenched system of apartheid that had come to dominate the world’s conscience during my 1980s college years was only a few years removed. And yet, instead of pondering any of this in the weeks and months leading up to the trip, I’d selfishly spent most of my time thinking about expanding my life list with exotic things like lilac-breasted rollers and cartwheeling bateleur eagles.

Cruising at thirty-six thousand feet with almost twenty hours to go, I opened my Sinclair’s Birds of Southern Africa and began the final cram session. Perhaps I could somehow pack the dizzying array of what I might see, the thousands of field marks—bill shapes, tail lengths, wing bars, crests, and rump patches—into permanent memory and instant recall.


I’d be one ocean closer to the connection—standing on the same tectonic plates as people whom I might rightly call relatives.


Somewhere in the middle of the night, the oceanic abyss that had offered no light or landmarks was interrupted by the flight attendant’s announcement that we were landing for a crew change and refueling on Cape Verde. According to the little animated plane slowly creeping across the screen on the headrest in front of me, we were almost halfway to our destination. Looking out the postage-stamp windowpanes, there wasn’t much to see. Where the verdant nomen came from was not obvious as the runway lights illuminated brown soil and scattered scrubby clumps of something not really green.

This complex of islands in the Atlantic was a crossroads for the African slave trade—a strategically centered set of dusty dots linking the middle passage to the other legs of the transatlantic triangle. As an African-American holding on to the mother continent by a hyphen, being there was, in that moment, eerie. All of that history and connection flew in and roosted somewhere in my head. As we grew closer to our destination, the roosting musings became more restless. What would the reception in South Africa be like? Would I just be another black face among the many? Would the black Africans embrace me? Would the white Africans accept me as a professional ornithologist and not just another black face?


On the ground in South Africa, I’d never seen so many black people. They were everywhere seemingly doing everything—being human to the fullest extent of the right. This was Mandela’s work, Tutu’s dream. It was a black world and I felt like I’d gone down the racial rabbit hole. I was no longer a minority—at least not racially anyway. It was beautiful. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of so many black folks in charge of things. I felt oddly comfortable in a place I’d never been.

The birding would have to get better, though. Beyond the blacksmith plover loitering on the tarmac, I’d ticked a house sparrow and a European starling—both species proving that the noxious invasion of exotics is indeed global.

I’m frequently guilty of overanalyzing, thinking way too much about simple things. Ironically, in a country where more people looked like me than not, I began to feel like the odd man out as we made our way through the airport—me, the sole person of color among a horde of obvious white tourists. Why the stares? Did people think I was their porter or something? Carrying the negroid banner as I was, I had the self-appointed responsibility for our blackness. No one else was qualified.

On the way to pick up our group’s rental vans the next day, the two other group leaders and I shared a cab ride with a white guy from Cape Town who spoke in what seemed like objective terms, talking about the good and bad of the new South Africa. The throngs of people walking everywhere were mostly the unemployed going nowhere. The rising jobless rate, ubiquitous poverty, lingering racism, and political malfeasance of the new leadership were all compressed into a fifteen-minute drive. As we described the mission of our trip, he asked with an air of assumption about our plans to visit the Apartheid Museum. Matter-of-factly, we said that our schedule wouldn’t allow it. He seemed surprised. I was embarrassed. I suddenly felt as if I had neglected history, humanity, and, most of all, my own identity in order to put tags on the names of things whose freedom and dignity had never been curtailed like the people of color who lived in this place. I didn’t share my feelings with anyone. After all, we were here for the ecology, and besides, maybe the colors of bee eaters and rollers would be dramatic enough to overcome the silly black/white thing.


Would the black Africans embrace me? Would the white Africans accept me as a professional ornithologist and not just another black face?

On the trip out of Johannesburg, our three Mercedes vans tucked head to tail like a family of white pachyderms, we saw legions of black folks on foot, heading somewhere and everywhere, or maybe nowhere. Street vendors dodged the morning’s thickening traffic, and we drove by them as if they were nothing more than ebony traffic cones. If you stayed alert you might spot something new for the life list, but you might also miss what is as much a part of South Africa as the incessant droning of Cape turtle doves—the masses of people trying somehow to make freedom work. For all the people we passed and all the poverty we ignored, I was pretty sure that if Nelson Mandela himself had been selling papers on the streets, we probably wouldn’t have recognized him as anything more than just another pedestrian.

As the skyline of the city shrank in our rear view, we began to pick up more of the unmistakable field marks of poverty, expanses of shabbily constructed wood, tin, and cardboard huts—not really houses, but huts—most maybe ten by ten feet square. These were the shantytowns I’d heard about. In some places stretching for a couple of miles along the highway and back to some horizon defined by the abject absence of anything looking hopeful, these were textbook shanties—the habitats of the dispossessed. In between the townships, there were brick and mortar dwellings that might well fit the American description of middle class—but whatever color people they housed, these habitations were almost always fortified by a fence. Not pretty white picket fences inviting admiration, or even chainlink fences to keep the kids and pets safe. No, these were fortress walls built of concrete blocks with barbed or razor wire menacingly poised to keep something, or someone, out. Even along the rural portions of the route, we encountered skeins of hitchhikers with thumbs raised. In two weeks there and over a couple thousand kilometers traveled, I’m not sure I ever saw a hitcher picked up.

We pushed southwest and the kilometers clicked by hypnotically. Time seemed to stall, even as the landscape morphed from urban to agricultural to expanses of thirsty-looking thorn scrub and grassland. The road birding was unbelievable and changed with the scenery. Long-tailed widowbirds struggled with their encumbering retrices in reedy ditches; tuxedo-feathered fiscal shrikes sat with perfect pied posture on telephone lines, while pale chanting goshawks waited to become some rodent’s nightmare. Ostriches, initially captivating, became common as cattle. Legions of smaller passerines, waterfowl silhouetted on shallow pans, and too many kestrel-like raptors had to go unidentified.

Sometimes the birds are a balm, an avian anesthesia that numbs pain or blocks unpleasant things. It is the Zen of putting field marks together—plumage, shape, behavior—into something that becomes a bird. This coming together, the gestalt, is what allows one to say what is seen, even when the views are fleeting and the song is incomplete. In that peaceful pursuit, the quarry is collected on a life list without having to give its life in return. It has been this way for most of my life: Me escaping to the birds. The birds providing something people couldn’t—comfort in my own skin, peace in stressful times, and acceptance without question of who I am or what I do.

I struggled initially with putting names to the birds of South Africa but things got better as I found my ornithological footing. Each new bird helped connect me to places I will never forget: a night drive with broad-winged coursers flitting like moths in our headlights; a warblerlike pririt batis on the edge of a field of petroglyphs; ant-eating shrikes posed like lookouts on termite mounds.

Above us, the South African sky was never ending—even bigger and bluer than Montana’s. Carved out of the cerulean, cumulous clouds climbed to impossible heights. This was the classic African savanna I’d dreamed of, a seemingly endless carpet of tawny brown Bushman’s grass the color of a lion’s coat with chalky, green acacia trees scattered sporadically across it. Even the brilliant, brick-red soil underneath it all was striking. One day a sudden thunderstorm left a rainbow stretched across the canvas of blue, red, brown, and green, clearing away stale, humid air to usher in the cool, mind-clearing aroma of ozone and rain-settled dust. That evening, we climbed a kopje, a boulder-strewn, shrub-studded rock island in the savanna sea, to watch the sun settle behind the bush. It was a perfectly memorable day that brought some sense of peace, as did the fact that two of the birders escorting us through the bush were black people.

The next week in the Kalahari was absurdly spectacular. Kori bustards, big as tom turkeys, strutted within yards of us. Gangs of aggressive fork-tailed drongos harassed everything in sight. Sociable swallow-tailed bee-eaters posed cooperatively in iridescent splendor for the camera. A cornucopia of avifauna hung like feathered fruit from every tree. I even had encounters with several black park rangers who seemed to take mutual comfort in the appearance of a face of color among the typically white throngs of ecotourists.

When the washboard roads of the Kalahari pushed one of our vehicles past its mechanical limits, I got to talk with a black Botswanan man from the car rental agency who met us at park headquarters to deliver a new wheel. We engaged mostly in small talk, with me trying to get him to understand where in the world Clemson, South Carolina, was. But as my white partner excused himself to wrap up the business, the conversation’s tone changed suddenly. Looking through my color to some deeper connection I think we both felt, he asked, “So, is it true you Americans think more of the animals here than the people?” It seemed as though he’d been waiting to ask the question of someone for a very long time. Perhaps because I had taken on the black baggage, I felt like I owed him the answer. “Yeah, that’s probably true,” I responded haltingly through the shock of the exposure. And then, as if to apologize, I tacked on, “But we’re trying to do better.” I’m not sure what his nod and half smile meant, but I felt relieved to have been found out. The conversation broke abruptly back to small talk when my white friend returned. Before departing, the Botswanan wished me well with the three-grip handshake that I had come to expect from my African brothers.

So often on this trip, black South Africans seemed less willing to talk openly about the tough issues in the presence of white people. But I felt a connection with them that seemed genuine, and took some comfort in the handshakes, which seemed to linger a little longer with me than with my white counterparts. This time, the connection had opened up a wound in my consciousness that I was not quite ready for. Here I was, an “African-American” behaving more like the arrogant American tourist hellbent on seeing everything but the real. At a traffic stop, I saw a little girl searching for something on top of a trash heap. For the few seconds that I saw her, I imagined that she might have to share what she found with the vultures and jackals. I’m not sure any one else noticed. Maybe they were dumbstruck at the sadness of it, shocked that the human condition could sink to such levels. Maybe they were caught up in the birds like I’d been.


For most of my life, I’ve been one of the few or the only one. Aside from my family and a few close friends, or perhaps on a rare foray to a black church, I often find myself among more white people than black. Throughout my school years I was placed in “advanced” academic tracks where whites were the overwhelming majority. I played bassoon in the symphonic band, went to band camp in the summer, became student council president. And though I had many black friends, played football, ran track, dated black girls, I was—am—still an outsider of sorts. I’m the black deer hunter, the black wildlife professor, the black birdwatcher.

I go to professional meetings and am the melanistic anomaly in the flock of white. I go hunting and people look suspiciously at the black guy wearing the camouflage “reserved” for the good ol’ boys. I go birding and am stared at like some rarity blown in from a distant place. I can almost count the black birders I know on one hand. Pitifully, there are even fewer African-American wildlife ecologists. Even in South Africa, I did not meet a single black person working as a wildlife ecologist for SANParks, the nation’s agency responsible for safeguarding the welfare of its incredibly diverse wildlife resources.

Henry was a savior of sorts. A skilled South African birder, he not only helped me pin down spike-heeled and Botha’s larks, he also showed me that there were people who looked like me with a passion for feathered things. Congenial and competent in his role as a tour guide for DeBeers, he talked frankly of his aspirations one moment and the next was pointing out gabar goshawks and bokmakieries without missing a beat. Riding shotgun with Henry in his truck provided a valuable moment of honest exchange between two black men. He gave me more than he will probably ever know. I hope the feeling was mutual. After I returned home, I sent him a better pair of binoculars and a spotting scope with which to perfect his craft.

I go birding and am stared at like some rarity blown in from a distant place.

Another sort of redemption came on our final day in South Africa, as Julius Koehn, a soft-spoken wildlife ecologist, graciously shared his passion for falconry with us. The young peregrine sitting on his gloved hand was a beautiful bird, reflecting more wild in its eyes than willingness to be commanded. When the bird flew, oaring its angular wings against the evening sky, two preteen boys took a keen interest in the show. As all of us watched the sleek raptor’s incredibly agile flight, my attention was drawn to the earthbound beauty of the two boys kneeling side by side, their heads swiveling in tandem as the bird swept by like a fighter jet on a low-level pass. The duo’s simultaneous smiles reflected the wonder of the moment; the only mark separating them was the color of their skin. It was obvious that they were close—sharing a respect for one another and this wild place. The sight of them against a backdrop of thornveld that framed them in the golden light of the fading day moved me, and provided some reassurance that future generations might see beyond a difference in skin color to see one another as equals.

The pieces of South Africa I witnessed were at one moment the idyllic Eden, full of wildlife and the wonder of all Creation; at other times, purgatory, where people seemed stuck in some condition between despair and utter poverty. In many respects South Africa surpassed my most grandiose visions of what Africa is. I felt a visceral connection to a place I’d never been. The dramatic landscapes awed me at times to tears. I absorbed a modest 126 life birds, watching each new entry to understand it not as just a tick mark but as an organism within the context of the place. But my eyes were also opened to the poverty, the nasty racism still writhing beneath the new democracy, the long trek ahead for the new nation. And although I saw only a fraction of what the nation has to o=er, it was enough to help me better understand my connections to nature and humanity, and to realize that the two are not as separate as I’d once thought.

The internal roller-coastering of my conscience will continue as I keep searching for my own identity, which unfortunately is not laid out clearly in any field guide. During the more challenging moments, I will recall that scene of the two boys watching the falcon and hope that that’s the way things will be—that we can all understand our unique identities from the skin inward and be comfortable in that. Appropriately enough, it was the birds that reminded me to not neglect my fellow humans, and that helped me through my own crisis of identification to a clearer picture of who I am—and who I might become.


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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.