Practicing Woke Birdwatching

J. Drew Lanham is a writer and birder I’ve come to appreciate over the last year. He and others came to my attention during Black Birders Week

Lanham wrote the 9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher, which first got me thinking about being White while birding. Now he’s written the 9 Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher.

Rule #3: List your privileges. Know your range. Can you wander like a warbler without wondering who’s watching you with suspicion?

J. Drew Lanham, 9 Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher

Here’s a record of my practicing Rule #3 during a recent bird walk:

Exploration Green 
Clear Lake City, Texas
Thursday, January 28, 2021
21 birds in a 3-hour walk from 1:30 PM to 4:30 PM
Recorded by Jenny and Julie
Birds:
- Egyptian Goose
- Savannah Sparrow
- Snowy Egret
- Great White Egret
- Cormorants
- Brown Pelicans
- Yellow-rumped Warblers
- Ring Billed Gull
- Great Blue Heron
- Little Blue Herons
- Mourning Doves
- Bluebirds
- European Starlings
- Robins
- Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
- Ibis, large flock
- Eastern Phoebe
- Red-winged Blackbird
- Ring-necked Ducks 
- Pine Siskin 
- Mockingbird

PRIVILEGES
- Being White
- Being healthy enough to be outside on my feet for 3 hours
- Having enough to eat to even want to go birding
- Being retired and able to go birding on a Thursday afternoon
- Having a smartphone and good internet access, which provides directions, bird maps, bird identification tools, record keeping, online birding webinars
- Having a car that runs well


Wandering While White

My sister Julie (right) and me, White women, wandering with the birds

Exploration Green is a former golf course that is being converted into a green space dedicated to conservation, recreation, and flood retention. It’s located in the middle of a Houston neighborhood, surrounded by single-family homes that used to be on a fairway but now are on a nature trail.

As my sister and I made our way around the trail, we noticed lots of birds at a tall birdfeeder that was sticking up from behind a tall berm. I wanted to get a closer look, and so we stepped off-trail and started climbing. 

At the top of the berm, we discovered ourselves standing in the large backyard of a private home. An older White man sat on his back patio, looking at us looking at him. 

He must have watched us as we climbed into his yard, looked through binoculars toward his house, made notes in our field books, pointed our fingers, and made comments about the birds flying on and off the feeder. This is normal birder behavior. 

The homeowner must be used to such intrusions, for he threw us a friendly but bored wave, and we moved on. 

How many ways would this scene have been different if we changed the colors?

Page from Christian Cooper’s comic, “It’s a Bird”

….If I were a Black birder instead of White, how would I have felt coming over the berm to find myself in a White man’s backyard?

….If my sister and I were two Black women birders, would the man have been as friendly? What if we were two Black men birders?

….If the homeowner had been Black instead of White, would I have been surprised? Scared?


J. Drew Lanham has become one of my favorite trainers in my effort to become a better birder, a better noticer, and a better human. 

Combine his Rules for Birdwatchers with his gorgeous memoir, The Home Place, and his recent interview with Krista Tippet. 

For a really tough workout, pair Lanham’s 9 Rules for the Woke Birdwatcher with the 8 pillars of caste described in Isabelle Wilderson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent.  

For further reading about birding while black, check out Christian Cooper’s comic, “It’s a Bird.”

4 comments

  1. Every time our eyes are opened to how much we, as white people, take for granted is a good thing. Thank you.

    What a lovely picture of you and Julie.

    Liked by 2 people

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