Birding While Black

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I wrote this article before the recent events of unrest and it seems even more appropriate now.

The New York Times had an article on May 26, 2020 about a woman who called the police to report a “African American” birdwatcher who had told her to leash her dog. She was quickly fired from her job. What was she thinking?

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2011, 93 percent of American birders were white, 5 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were black, 1 percent were Asian American, and 2 percent were “other.”  I’ve been to many professional meetings of ecologists and ornithologists and rarely saw anyone who wasn’t white. Non-white people, it seems, are reluctant to go into the outdoors in pursuit of birds. And for good reason.

Doing ecological studies or just birdwatching in the field, I have been stopped by several people, including the police, who thought my behavior suspicious. I’m white; I cringe to think what might have happened to me if I was some other color.

Dr. J. Drew Lanham

The following is from Orion Magazine, 2013. I’ve edited it a bit for brevity but maintained the author’s points:

9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher

1. Be prepared to be confused with the other black birder. Even though there are only two of you at the bird festival and you’re wearing a name tag and are six inches taller than him. Yes, you will be called by his name at least half a dozen times by supposedly observant people who can distinguish gull molts in a blizzard.

2. Carry your binoculars — and three forms of identification — at all times. You’ll need binoculars and a photo ID to convince the cops, FBI, Homeland Security, and the security guard that you’re not a terrorist or escaped convict.

3. Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.

4. Nocturnal birding is a no-no. Yeah, so you’re chasing a rare owl. You’re a black man sneaking around in 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 Forest Whitaker — especially if you look like Forest Whitaker.

5. Black birds are your birds. The often-overlooked blackbirds are declining across the board. Then there are the other birds that just happen to be black. They’re largely ignored and often persecuted because of stereotype and misunderstanding. Sounds like profiling to me.

6. The official word for an African American in cryptic clothing — camo or otherwise — is incognegroYou are a rare bird, easy to see but invisible just the same. Until you snap off the identification of some confusing fall warbler by chip note as it flies overhead at midnight, you will just be a token.

7. Want to see the jaws of blue-blooded birders drop? Tell them John James Audubon, the patron saint of American ornithology, had some black blood coursing through his veins. Old JJ’s mom was likely part Haitian.

8. Use what’s left of your black-president momentum on the largely liberal birder crowd to step to the front of the spotting-scope line to view that wayward Smew that wandered into U.S. waters from Eurasia.  After all, you stand about as much of a chance of seeing a Smew again as you do of seeing another black president.

9. You’re an endangered species — extinction looms. You know all the black birders and can count them on two hands. You’re afraid to have lunch with them all because a single catastrophe could wipe the species from the face of the earth.

By Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a writer, birder, hunter, and naturalist from South Carolina. Lanham considers “conserving birds and their habitat a moral mission that needs the broadest and most diverse audience possible to be successful.”

4 thoughts on “Birding While Black”

  1. Timely blog Roger. My heart breaks for people of color to have to worry when doing something so natural and fun as bird watching.

    Thank you.

  2. Dr. Lederer, were you recently on Wait wait…Don’t
    Tell me? Show on NPR? If so, I have an urgent question for you!

  3. Barbara Adamson

    Great article and life-saving tips for Black birdwatchers.??

    Iwas introduced to Dr. J. Drew Lanham on NPR’s On Being today, January 31, 2021. What a fabulous interview by Ms. Tibbett. I now know what an ornithologist is.?

    I enjoy serenity, in tandem with nature. This year, I’ll try to incorporate more areas of nature in the NYC and Westchester County areas.

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