Staving Off Confrontation While Watching Birds Host Arun Rath talks with African-American wildlife biologist J. Drew Lanham about his article in the current issue of Orion Magazine, "9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher."

Staving Off Confrontation While Watching Birds

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It's ALL THING CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.


RATH: I love birds. But honestly, I'm not much of an outdoorsman. So I often engage in city birding, which can be surprisingly rewarding. In Manhattan, I used to watch peregrine falcons hunting pigeons between skyscrapers. There's a drawback, though. Walking around apartment buildings with binoculars in a big city, people are more likely to think you're a pervert than a birder.

Imagine if some awkwardness and suspicion followed you everywhere you went birding, and you might have an idea what it's like to be an African-American birder. Drew Lanham is an avid birder and professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University. He has an essay in the current issue of Orion magazine called "Nine Rules for the Black Bird Watcher."

DREW LANHAM: (Reading) 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 Forrest Whitaker, especially if you look like Forrest Whitaker.

RATH: So you mentioned yourself that black birders, to use your terminology, you're an endangered species. I think you said that birding is one of the whitest things that you can do. Why is that, do you think?

LANHAM: Well, you know, I grew up in Edgefield, South Carolina, kind of in the boondocks, and so, you know, birds were just a natural part of my life. And as I began to watch birds from the second grade onward, you know, I didn't run into anyone who looked like me who liked birds. You know, it just became clear that it was an overwhelmingly white hobby. And I think the data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bears that out.

RATH: Hmm. One of your rules, you suggest that black birders have an affinity with black birds. Could you break that down?

LANHAM: You know, I'll read that if I can.

RATH: Yeah.

LANHAM: (Reading) Black birds, any black birds, are your birds. 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.

RATH: I always thought crows got a bad rap.



LANHAM: And they do, Arun. They get a really bad rap, you know? Culturally, they've been seen as kind of tricksters and thieves. And they see them in that way, but they are super smart birds. The research bears that out, you know, complex language and the ability to identify faces on humans. And, you know, going forward and thinking about those black birds and how they are overlooked and how they're persecuted without people really understanding them, you know, I mean, it's easy for me as a black birder to take on a black bird kind of as my totem.

RATH: You end the piece with a pretty sharp point about how birders should care more about than just counting birds. What do you mean by that?

LANHAM: Yeah. You know, Arun, there are millions of birders doing things from feeding their birds in their backyards to traveling great distances to see birds. And because it's a hobby that depends on us watching a living thing that's also a bellwether of the environment, I think we're tasked with doing more than just watching and tasked with doing more than just listening.

And thinking about how we can serve these beautiful creatures as fellow beings on the planet who share air and water and earth, I think it's a critical thing that we think beyond our binoculars to think about conserving those other beings that share our space.

RATH: Drew Lanham is a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University and an avid birder. His piece in Orion magazine called "Nine Rules for the Black Bird Watcher" is online now. Drew, thank you.

LANHAM: Thank you very much, Arun.


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