June 2021

Vol. 49, No. 3

9 Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher

J. Drew Lanham

This article first appeared in the Winter '20 issue of Orion Magazine.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. List your privileges. Know your range. Can you wander like a warbler without wondering who’s watching you with suspicion?
  4. Be bold. Speak up. Identify racism as you would call out a crow among snow buntings. Silence lets the oppression grow unchecked.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

J. Drew Lanham is an author, poet, professor, and bird adorer living in Seneca, South Carolina. He is the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and Sparrow Envy: Poems. His essays have appeared in Best American Essays, Vanity Fair, Oxford American, Terrain, Newsweek, and elsewhere.

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