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


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“My dad gave me a pair of binoculars after I was ten years outdated, and I haven’t put them down since”—that’s how Christian Cooper, the cheery, bespectacled host of Nationwide Geographic’s 2023 present Extraordinary Birder,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 dwelling turf in New York Metropolis. At every cease, he goes adventuring with specialists, visits conservation initiatives, 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 Instances-bestselling memoir, Higher Dwelling By means of 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 Instances 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 tip of Could. My mates don’t see me, and I’m not going out at night time as a result of I’m going to mattress at eight. And so they’re all the time whining about it; they ask, “Why do you do that?” That is why: 

  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 amassing  
  1. The pleasures of searching, with out the bloodshed  
  1. The enjoyment of puzzle fixing 
  1. The seventh—that is what I name the Unicorn Impact. You realize there’s a fowl on the market since you’ve seen footage of it, examine it in books, seen it within the discipline information, and at some point 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, “When 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 one among Cooper’s myths, a goddess of the Earth discovered a land stuffed with gems that “had been determined to come back 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.

Considered one of my hobbies is writing myths. One of many myths I wrote was that the goddess of the Earth was giving out all these items to all of the completely 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 come back 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 power in. And naturally they’re stones, so nothing occurred, however she lastly poured in a lot power that they burst into life and have become hummingbirds, and now they’re vibrating with power. [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: Once you speak about birding, you chorus from being too nerdy, scientific, or esoteric. Is there a motive for that?

CC: I see it as my job to translate messages. The title—Extraordinary Birder—doesn’t consult with me. What the title refers to is all these wonderful individuals who we meet within the present, the contributors who could also be birders or ornithologists or simply devoted people who’ve frolicked 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 convey it to an viewers—and convey it in a approach they’ll perceive, admire, 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: Considered one of my favourite parallels got here within the Alabama episode. I don’t assume it made it to the digital camera, nevertheless it’s the actual fact my household are all northern folks 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 an incredible, eye-opening expertise in so some ways. 

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

The birds are wintering within the south. They go away the south to come back 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’ll possibly be extra profitable—so it’s not an accident that the identical phrase migration is used if you’re speaking about birds seasonally and if you’re speaking about African Individuals who left in this time period for alternatives within the north.  

So, I like it when you could find issues like that, however you may’t drive 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 one among many short-distance migrants that broaden their vary northward within the spring and summer time to boost younger. Picture by Karen Patterson/Macaulay Library.

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

CC: I feel it reveals the ways in which birds and birdlife are woven into our on a regular basis lives and thru everyone’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 got a Black girl biologist. Within the Puerto Rico episode, we’ve got a blind man who’s a birder and it provides me an opportunity to clarify one of many explanation why we use the time period “birder,” [because people can enjoy birds in more ways than just watching] and simply the concept birding is for folks in all walks of life—queer, trans, everyone—birds don’t care! 

As everyone knows, there’s a massive deficit in Black and Brown folks birding on this nation, and elsewhere… I’m hoping that by being the face of the present, numerous Black and Brown youngsters 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 should 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. Picture 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 good looking 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: Properly, 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 achieve 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 folks, equality for queer folks, and the enjoyment of untamed birds for all folks!

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 another Black folks 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 below his wing! 

AAB: It’s actually vital to have even one one that 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 simply’ve bought to succeed in slightly additional past the standard views you could be accustomed to reaching for. By way of diversifying its imaginative and prescient, diversifying its workers, diversifying all the pieces concerning the Lab, numerous 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 large. That has the potential of transferring lots of people into the place we’d like them to go, so we are able to save what’s left of our planet, so nothing however admiration for him and what he’s completed. 

However hey, if I’m in a position to depart from [Attenborough’s] custom, you’ve bought anyone Black and queer doing this now! And displaying that there’s potentialities for others, nice! I like to think about it as a rising pie slightly 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. Picture by Anthony Bruno/Macaulay Library.

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

CC: Let’s do it.  

AAB: You’ve expressed numerous reward to your spark fowl, the Purple-winged Blackbird. Different birds you maintain expensive 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 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 a giant 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 might 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 referred to 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 birds and no person else in school provides a rattling. I spotted 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 your best option I ever made.  

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


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