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Diversity In Nature: Ecology Professor Drew Lanham On ‘Rules For The Black Birder’

The Pacific Northwest is known as a Mecca for bird watchers. Diverse habitats offer shelter for hundreds of species throughout the state. In summer, urban parks offer viewing of everything from osprey and bald eagles to chickadees and warblers, hummingbirds, owls and woodpeckers.

But what if while pursuing that passion you felt out of place, because of the color of your skin? Wildlife ecologist and avid birder Drew Lanham uses satire to get people talking about it. His essay “9 Rules for the Black Bird Watcher” first appeared in Orion Magazine and was then adapted by BirdNoteinto a short YouTube video. It’s full of zingers such as, “Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder” and “Carry your binoculars — and three forms of identification — at all times” or “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.”   

No wonder that the piece went viral online.

Satire Fueled By Stark Reality

Lanham, who is a professor at Clemson University, says he came up with the idea very quickly while thinking about what was going on in the news, outside of the world of birding.

“They kind of come together for me. You know, I’m black, proudly so – but I’m also proudly a birder.”

But he says there’s a stark reality of being a black man doing something that people don’t expect you to be doing.

“Realizing that I’ve been asked for my ID in places that I wouldn’t expect to be asked for an ID,” he says. “You know, if I’m dressed a certain way, that people may suspect me of not being up to the best things.”

Human Survival At Stake

Lanham’s sentiments are timely.  With the demographics of the United States quickly becoming less white, conservation groups such as the Audubon Society are putting a premium on diversity. Lanham says nothing less than the survival of the human race is at stake, because if people of color are not invested in environmental movements, there’s a big risk that the majority won’t care about those causes.

“And for people to understand that the air that we breathe is the same air that birds and other beings breathe,” he says.  “So, as the United States changes demographically -- and we know it is, and quickly -- if we don’t relate to everyone, then we’re going to lose out. And not just for the birds, but for us. All of our fates are intertwined.”

Origins: ‘I Wanted To Fly’

Lanham’s fascination with birds started in his early childhood in rural Edgefield, South Carolina, where his parents were science teachers who encouraged him to play in the woods and follow his youthful fascinations.

“And so I spent a lot of time outdoors -- and really wanting to fly,” he says, adding that he actually tried to do so with everything from cardboard wings to umbrellas.

“I think about myself now as a little brown Icarus, because I was constantly falling back to earth. I wanted to fly and couldn’t,” he says “And birds – birds provided that reality of flight.”  

Advice For Others: 'Do Your Thing'

He encourages other people of color to follow their passions and not be discouraged if they at first feel out of place, based on outward appearances.

“Do your thing. Be you,” he says. “If you love birds, love birds. Don’t be dissuaded because you don’t see others out there that look like you.”

Because, as critical as it is for us to see people who look like us, it’s also critical that we be with people who feel like us, Lanham says; that passion is a key to finding common ground and unity.

“Take the opportunity to unite with someone that’s different than you … and you find these wonderful commonalities that lie underneath skin color.”  

Dr. J. Drew Lanham is a professor of Wildlife Ecology in the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences at South Carolina’s Clemson University. Also a widely published author and award-nominated poet, he writes about his experiences as a birder, hunter and wandering soul. His first solo work, "The Home Place-Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature" (Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis MN) will be published in September.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to