Birding: Could you describe your birding vehicle for us?
JDL: Well, I have this camoed out 1986 Ford Bronco II that I call “Woody the Incognegro-mobile.” It’s splotched flat green, black, tan, and brown. No one sees me coming in it! I also have a 2000 white and rusting hunting/birding Chevy pickup truck I call “Snow-flake.” Those two field vehicles with almost 50 years of age between them and almost 400,000 combined miles make quite the pair. In many ways, they reflect my own middle-aged, high-mileage sensibilities. We’ve seen a lot of good birds together.
As a boy, Drew Lanham was inspired by birds on his fam-ily’s 200-acre farm in rural South Carolina. Photo cour-tesy of James H. Lanham.
Birding: Why are black Americans under-represented in today’s birding scene? How can we change that?
JDL: Birding is simply a small slice of the American wildlife conservation and outdoor avocation pie. That pie was baked by white men primarily and white women to a lesser extent, and only fairly recently have others really been invited to carve their own slices. I think much of it is a matter of exposure and education.
There’s that mantra again—“everybody has a bird story.” That includes black and brown people. There are many cultural connections to birds. That’s something we need to pay more attention to. Birding can be pretty intense sometimes, and we just expect others to be as intense as we are. By softening the edge to listen to the bird stories of others, and by understanding their relationship to nature (or lack thereof), we can begin to meet folks where they are—and not insist on dragging them to where we want them to be. So show someone a cardinal, and revel in its brilliant redness—or a mockingbird, and wonder at its song-making abilities. Don’t gloss over the common birds and by all means don’t denigrate birds into categories of good and bad. When we share the wonder of what we love lovingly, then we can begin to cross lines of difference.
I think birding is getting better. We see efforts at inclusion growing and that’s a positive. More and more, I think it’s imperative to link birds’ lives to our lives. Our ranges overlap, and we share the same air, same water, same soil. How we care for birds is how we care for ourselves and one another. Empathy goes a long way in the inclusion game.
One more thing: Please don’t tell a person of color you don’t see color. That’s insulting. After all, most birders spend lots of time seeing color—otherwise a Red-winged Blackbird and a Snow Bunting wouldn’t be so beautifully different. So, see the color. Respect the face. Get to know me inside. The rest will fall into place.
Ecologist Drew Lanham stares down another icon of South Carolina ornithology—the extinct Carolina Parakeet. Photo by © Dorinda Dallmeyer.
Birding: Should we laugh or cry at your article, “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher”—and subsequent short video produced by BirdNote and featured by National Geographic?
JDL: I hope people laugh. Then I hope they think about why they laughed. Then maybe they’ll cry about why they laughed. Then I hope in the end they think again about why they have to think about whether to laugh or cry or fall into angry cursing spasms over the whole deal. My father used to say that some things are laughable but not funny. That’s what “9 Rules” is, for the most part. It’s satire that I and many other black birders have lived. Humor is kind of like the spoonful of sugar that goes with the bitter–nasty medicine. We need medicating when it comes to issues of race and bias, but most white folks don’t want that dosage. It’s not often pleasant to discuss, but necessary for our health as a community. My hope in writing and then acting that out was to slip some truth in as people chuckled. Then, after chuckling, they might feel some kind of way about why something as serious as being profiled or in fear of one’s life because of skin color might impact how birding or any other activity can be bent through the prism of identity.
Birding: C’mon, just nine? What’s #10?
JDL: Even if that rare bird is just “over there,” a Confederate flag is an instant impediment to black-birder range expansion and list enlargement. It says you can hang around here, literally. Find your bird beyond the stars and bars.
Birding: What is your message for those just getting interested in birds?
JDL: Don’t just watch birds. Absorb birds! Take the time to observe and notice. Don’t just identify birds. Identify with birds! Find common cause in common birds and abundant joy in rare ones. Birds need us, but we need them, too. Conserve by loving what you watch. Birding has the power to inspire and inform us beyond our bipedally grounded state. Watch and wonder!
A Southerner, Drew Lanham (right) tells the stories of how bird conservation and culture connect in places often littered with the bit-ter history of enslavement and racism. Sitting with Douglas Gibson, a renowned waterfowl carver from Milford, Delaware, is a link to a legacy of the past and possibilities for the future. Photo by © Carrie Samis.