Q&A: Catching Up with Christian Cooper, Host of “Extraordinary Birder”

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Christian Cooper witnesses a launch of rehabilitated Hawaiian Geese, or Nene, to the wild, in an episode of Extraordinary Birder. Picture courtesy of the Walt Disney Firm.

“My dad gave me a pair of binoculars once I was ten years outdated, and I haven’t put them down since”—that’s how Christian Cooper, the cheery, bespectacled host of Nationwide Geographic’s 2023 present Extraordinary Birder, opens every episode. Skipping from one birding vacation spot to the following, he explores locations like Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and his residence turf in New York Metropolis. At every cease, he goes adventuring with specialists, visits conservation tasks, and shares his bottomless enthusiasm for the distinctive birdlife he finds alongside the best way.  

Christian Cooper wrote about his lifelong love for birds and birding in a 2023 New York Occasions-bestselling memoir, Higher Dwelling By Birding: Notes from a Black Man within the Pure World. He’s a Cornell Lab administrative board member and is on the NYC Audubon board of administrators. We sat down with the previous Marvel comics author and editor to speak about weaving fowl myths, rising up a Black and queer birder, and the common enchantment of birding. 

The next interview has been edited for size and readability.   

Book cover--man looking up with binoculars with blue cloudy sky in background.
Cooper’s 2023 memoir is a New York Occasions bestseller.

All About Birds: What’s it about birdlife that connects deeply with you, and what about birding brings you essentially the most pleasure?

Christian Cooper: The lengthy reply is one thing I name the seven pleasures of birding.

Yearly, I disappear through the spring migration, from the center of April till the top of Could. My associates don’t see me, and I’m not going out at night time as a result of I’m going to mattress at eight. They usually’re all the time whining about it; they ask, “Why do you do that?” This is the reason: 

  1. The great thing about the birds 
  1. The enjoyment of being in a pure setting 
  1. The pleasure of scientific discovery  
  1. The enjoyment of accumulating  
  1. The pleasures of looking, with out the bloodshed  
  1. The enjoyment of puzzle fixing 
  1. The seventh—that is what I name the Unicorn Impact. You understand there’s a fowl on the market since you’ve seen photos of it, examine it in books, seen it within the discipline information, and sooner or later you’re on the market and there it’s in actual life as if a mythological creature has come to life.  

AAB: You describe birds so vividly, like within the present you say, “In the event you took a ruby and infused it with a lot life that it burst open, that’s a hummingbird.” In what methods does nature encourage your writing?

A bright little green and blue bird with a long, red bill
In considered one of Cooper’s myths, a goddess of the Earth discovered a land filled with gems that “had been determined to return alive.” They turned hummingbirds. Broad-billed Hummingbird by Ryan Sanderson/Macaulay Library.

CC: All my religious inspiration comes from the pure world round me, even when it’s a sky with scattered clouds I can have a look at—it fills me with a way of marvel and awe.

One in every of my hobbies is writing myths. One of many myths I wrote was that the goddess of the Earth was giving out all these presents to all of the totally different creatures of the world, and she or he bought to the Western Hemisphere the place there have been all these rubies and emeralds and gems that had been determined to return alive. So, they sort of formed themselves into birds to faux out the goddess of the Earth. She thought, ‘All proper, you made an effort,’ so she poured all this vitality in. And naturally they’re stones, so nothing occurred, however she lastly poured in a lot vitality that they burst into life and have become hummingbirds, and now they’re vibrating with vitality. [Note: the full version of this story appears in Cooper’s 2014 book Songs of the Metamythos.]

So, sure, the pure world does encourage my writing and the best way I take into consideration the world.

AAB: Whenever you speak about birding, you chorus from being too nerdy, scientific, or esoteric. Is there a purpose for that?

CC: I see it as my job to translate messages. The title—Extraordinary Birder—doesn’t check with me. What the title refers to is all these superb individuals who we meet within the present, the contributors who could also be birders or ornithologists or simply devoted people who’ve hung out making an attempt to avoid wasting the birds. These are the extraordinary birders and so they have a wealth of data, and it’s my job to take that data and produce it to an viewers—and produce it in a approach they will perceive, respect, and soak up it.

AAB: Within the present I see this fixed stream of you drawing parallels between birdlife and human life and creating empathy that approach, which I discover actually cool!

CC: One in every of my favourite parallels got here within the Alabama episode. I don’t suppose it made it to the digicam, nevertheless it’s the very fact my household are all northern individuals for a number of generations. However [if] you go far sufficient again within the household historical past of any African American, our roots are within the South. I’d by no means been to Alabama, so I went down and it was such a tremendous, eye-opening expertise in so some ways. 

My dad’s facet of the household, the Coopers, had left Alabama. And we went north throughout what’s often known as the Nice Migration [beginning in 1910] when African People left the South in enormous numbers to flee persecution and bigotry, but in addition to seek out financial alternatives within the North, in order that your children get raised in a greater setting. That’s [similar to] what birds do yearly!  

The birds are wintering within the south. They go away the south to return to the north as a result of there’s [seasonal] alternative, as a result of there’s an opportunity to boost your younger the place they may possibly be extra profitable—so it’s not an accident that the identical phrase migration is used once you’re speaking about birds seasonally and once you’re speaking about African People who left in this time period for alternatives within the north.  

So, I like it when yow will discover issues like that, however you’ll be able to’t pressure it—it’s both there or it’s not. If it’s there, I attempt to convey that out.  

A blue and chestnut bird feeds grubs to a begging mottled gray-and-white, young bird with an open mouth.
Jap Bluebirds are considered one of many short-distance migrants that develop their vary northward within the spring and summer season to boost younger. Photograph by Karen Patterson/Macaulay Library.

AAB: I feel it’s stunning the way you’re drawn to unconventional birding narratives within the present, too.   

CC: I feel it exhibits the ways in which birds and birdlife are woven into our on a regular basis lives and thru all people’s on a regular basis lives. So with the present, you’re all the time spotlighting, sure, many white guys who’re birders, and white ladies who’re birders, but in addition different ladies who’re birders. Within the Palm Springs episode, we’ve a Black lady biologist. Within the Puerto Rico episode, we’ve a blind man who’s a birder and it offers me an opportunity to elucidate one of many the explanation why we use the time period “birder,” [because people can enjoy birds in more ways than just watching] and simply the concept that birding is for individuals in all walks of life—queer, trans, all people—birds don’t care! 

As everyone knows, there’s a large deficit in Black and Brown individuals birding on this nation, and elsewhere… I’m hoping that by being the face of the present, loads of Black and Brown children will tune in and say, “He’s doing that? Oh! I can try this too!” It’s a lot simpler to think about your self doing one thing in case you can see somebody who appears to be like such as you doing it. 

A gray and yellow streaky bird in a tree.
Kirtland’s Warbler in Central Park, New York Metropolis. Photograph by Sander Willems/Macaulay Library.

AAB: In your memoir, you title one of many first chapters “An Incident in Central Park.” However as an alternative of it being about that infamous altercation in 2020, it’s a lovely narrative of the way you noticed a really uncommon Kirtland’s Warbler in Central Park two years earlier. Why is it vital so that you can not be recognized from the origin story of the Central Park incident? 

CC: Effectively, as a result of it’s not my origin story. If you wish to draw a superhero parallel: Spider-Man’s origin story is when he will get bitten by a radioactive spider, however he didn’t get well-known till what made him well-known within the comedian. It’s like that. The incident at Central Park made me acquire prominence, however it’s not what I do—it was possibly 4 minutes. 

There’s an entire bunch of issues I’ve been combating and dealing for for years and years earlier than the incident, primarily justice for Black individuals, equality for queer individuals, and the enjoyment of untamed birds for all individuals!

AAB: What issues have helped you navigate the largely white, straight birding neighborhood?  

CC: I feel having a mentor who actually made it his enterprise that my curiosity in birds bought nurtured and that I felt welcomed no matter the truth that there weren’t every other Black individuals within the group. I had this mentor, Elliott Kutner, from the South Shore Audubon Society, one of many founders of the society who led the Sunday fowl walks. And when this little 9- or 10-year-old confirmed up on one of many walks, his eyes glowing with ardour for birds, he took one look and actually and figuratively took me underneath his wing! 

AAB: It’s actually vital to have even one one who believes in you, places their religion in you, and places in that effort.  

CC: Yeah, positively. And it’s one thing as a member of the [Cornell Lab’s] Board now I’m making an attempt to work on—reminding them that you just’ve bought to succeed in a bit additional past the same old views you could be accustomed to reaching for. By way of diversifying its imaginative and prescient, diversifying its workers, diversifying every little thing in regards to the Lab, loads of work to do! So, yeah, get busy, Lab!  

AAB: For many individuals, David Attenborough is the quintessential nature present host. Is there something about his work that conjures up you or any critiques you have got for him? 

CC: I’m impressed by his longevity, the breadth of his attain, and now he’s taken up the mantle on local weather change in order that’s enormous. That has the opportunity of transferring lots of people into the place we’d like them to go, so we will save what’s left of our planet, so nothing however admiration for him and what he’s achieved. 

However hey, if I’m capable of depart from [Attenborough’s] custom, you’ve bought anyone Black and queer doing this now! And exhibiting that there’s potentialities for others, nice! I like to think about it as a rising pie moderately than a restricted pie. It needs to be—if we’re going to avoid wasting the planet. It completely needs to be.  

A large brown bird with big talons and yellow feed, flies against a snowy landscape.
To see Golden Eagles, Cooper visits Franklin Mountain Hawkwatch in Oneonta, New York, a “Golden Eagle superhighway” throughout migration. Photograph by Anthony Bruno/Macaulay Library.

AAB: Are you down for a rapid-fire, of types?  

CC: Let’s do it.  

AAB: You’ve expressed loads of reward to your spark fowl, the Pink-winged Blackbird. Different birds you maintain pricey to you? 

CC: Blackburnian Warbler. That fowl simply ignites a ardour in me. Golden Eagles, which I received’t get to see a lot, being in New York more often than not, however I’ll usually make a pilgrimage as much as Oneonta [New York] to Franklin Mountain Hawkwatch, and I’ll look ahead to a day on the finish of October or starting of November when a chilly entrance has moved in from the northwest, as a result of it’ll push migrating Golden Eagles proper by way of that hole within the mountains and it’s just like the E-ZPass lane on the Golden Eagle superhighway.  

AAB: Any books or birders or writers that encourage your work? 

CC: I’d say Professor J. Drew Lanham of Clemson College. He’s been an enormous inspiration to all of us Black birders, as a result of he articulates a lot about our expertise so superbly and poetically. 

AAB: If there was a fowl you can rename, which one would it not be? 

CC: It could be the scientific title of the Blackburnian Warbler. Which is Setophaga fuscafusca means drab, or boring. “[So] wait, you took a fowl with a fiery yellow-orange throat, and also you known as it Setophaga fusca?” I’d change it to Setophaga fieria! Or Setophaga solaria!

AAB: What could be your recommendation to your younger birder self? 

CC: It’s okay to be a nerd. It’s okay to be the man who runs round taking a look at birds and no person else at college offers a rattling. I noticed that that is what brings me pleasure, that is what I’m about, and I’m going to keep it up. And that was possibly the only option I ever made.  

Pareesay Afzal’s work on this text as a scholar editorial assistant was made potential by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communications Fund, with assist from Jay Branegan (Cornell ’72) and Stefania Pittaluga. 

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