Field Note: Why I Write to Birds

by J. Drew Lanham | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of Poetry Northwest’s “Life List” feature.

In these United States of America, where racism seems consistently invincible, in a nation where no region—Southeast to Northwest or any far corner flung out in two thousand mile transects from the Nebraskan prairie, centroid of its alleged greatness, from Olympic rain forest to Florida Everglade and back up to Vermont verdancy, then down to the southern border walls that keep love and kindness at bay, all fifty states crisscrossed over and over and back again—none escapes blame. As daily bouts with bias take their toll and all that is wrong and societally entropic erodes confidence, birds are a constant salve that sometimes eases the strain. Birds are the distraction that make bitter human realities more bearable. Birds give me hope in something beyond the persistent range-wide hate that comes in waves. 

I crave birds like water. I long for birds as a lover would the other half. In those times when I cannot bear firsthand witness to avian reality in some wild space, writing must suffice. Writing that flushes bobwhite quail from thickets of books or releases swallow-tailed kites to float-glide in verse, is sustenance. To have words render birds as “who’s” rather than “what’s” is my literary manna. When I can bring identification from field guide to feeling guide and into another’s conscious as a fellow living being worthy of adoration, the work for that sentence or stanza or story is, for the moment, done. Taxonomy and binomial nomenclature becomes less the aim than connection to self and conservation.

The birds I daily see soaring, flying, singing, perching, hopping, and nesting are inspirations to keep living. Beyond the “easy” task of pigeon-holing, identifying each by appearance—by feather color, by beak shape, by flight speed (falcon fast or a vulture’s slow and lazy soar)—I wonder what’s beyond what I see. I seek some common identity between bird and person. In doing so, I’m willfully blurring lines. Maybe blowing past some scientifically objectified interspecific taboos. Watching some warbler sing, I’m pulled into deeper questioning that takes me past ascending trill or falling buzz. Does the behavior it displays signify a healthy state? Is habitat quality optimal and food plentiful? Is there cover to escape from predators? Are there opportunities to reproduce, to carry on the genetic line with a mate? What bends this individual’s choice to be here? What might cause it to expand contract its range beyond this circumstance, this particular place?

I do know that as the free bird sings, we can be deceived into believing all is well. The happy-seeming song can hide distress. It might be a misheard cry for help. Has the habitat been cut down, drained or developed and paved over? Has the food been poisoned by contaminants? Are the predators run amuck—domestic cats gone feral or beloved family pets turned loose by careless owners to slaughter and kill in the billions? Perhaps populations have crashed to levels where coming together with another (or others) for nesting has become a limiting factor. What if I’m singing in vain to empty thickets and there’s no one left to answer? All of that trips my algorithmic triggers to think and ultimately write about more than wing bars or tail flashes. If pushed by some force of human action to levels of questionable persistence, or worse to threatened or endangered status, then how does it survive? What factors will push it to thriving? What impacts might cause it to become the end of the line? In that questioning, the conservation cause falls to common plight. Sympathy elevates to empathy. The birds and I not only share same air, same water, same soil, but also a struggle to make it from one day to the next. There is a tension in wildness. When those wild things live lives on the wind and can be pushed and pulled across hemispheres by whim of weather or force of will, how can I not find the words to bring notice to them?

I see a bird. I watch that bird. I absorb that bird mostly without worrying how many other birds I might see or scribe on a list. That bird is the only bird until the next bird comes along. I take in the places—the forests and tangles and seacoasts and rolling prairies. I pay closest attention to a single bird’s ways of being. Ascribing some name to it—red-winged blackbird, black phoebe, black-necked stilt, black vulture, black-and-white-warbler—most are relatively easy identification tasks for me now. I see myself somehow in each of them, can feel some of the same struggles and envy their ability to slip the ties that bind and find freedom in flight.

And so I write about birds. I write for birds. I write to birds. 

I write in poems and prose. I word-craft in short form social media and long essay. I two-finger tap in minuscule mobile phone font and still sometimes scribble in longhand—an illegible chicken-scratched script that lies scattered in notepads and pieces of journals as draft stories and ragged verse. I gather it all and weave and wrap until there is some story in which I can nest.

Ornithologist, naturalist, essayist and poet, J. Drew Lanham is the author of the poetry collection Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts (Hub City Press, 2021) and The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed Editions, 2017 ), which received the Reed Award from the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Southern Book Prize, and was a finalist for the John Burroughs Medal. Lanham’s essays and poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and journals including Orion, Audubon, Forest Ecology and Management, and the Oxford American, and in several anthologies, including The Colors of Nature and State of the Heart. He is a contributing editor for Orion. Lanham is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology, Master Teacher, and Certified Wildlife Biologist at Clemson University where he works in the Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department. He was an inaugural fellow of the Audubon-Toyota Together Green Initiative and is an Advisory Council member of the North American Association for Environmental Education. Lanham is the poet laureate of Edgefield, South Carolina. Lanham is a 2022 recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation.