Christian Cooper has learned how to turn a horrible life incident into something for the greater good. In 2020, he was racially profiled by a white woman while bird-watching in Central Park. She falsely accused him of threatening her life. The recorded incident went viral and sparked outrage. Cooper is now humming a new tune as the host of the new Nat Geo Wild series, Extraordinary Birder.
"My dad was a science teacher, so nature was always important in our household. He took our whole family camping frequently," Cooper shares. "An appreciation for the wild was there from the start, but with me, it took the particular form of a love of birds."
In the new series, Cooper visits exciting new locales and partakes in unexpected and miraculous situations in order to learn more about different bird species. Here, the author and expert explains more about the show and why more Black people should start looking up in the sky for our feathered friends.
EBONY: How did this new project come about?
Christian Cooper: In the aftermath of the incident in Central Park, National Geographic approached me about hosting a birding TV series. I thought: “Have someone take me around the nation to find great birds and share the experience with a huge audience? Twist my arm!"
What should viewers expect with each episode?
Each episode of Extraordinary Birder takes us to a new location to explore not only the special birds of that place, but also the intersection of birds and people, for good and bad, and what people are doing to make things better. We meet some great folks of all kinds—the extraordinary birders of the title—doing amazing things for the birds.
Where are some of the exciting places you travel to share these incredible stories?
We travel to places like New York City, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, but my favorite episode is Alabama. I’m a Northerner born and bred, but go far enough back in the ancestry of any African American, and you’ll find our roots in the South. On my dad’s side, our people came from Alabama, but I had never been. On the show, we go to Selma, and I walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where so much civil rights history is aligned. That episode weaves together birds, family history and civil rights history and finds some surprising insights and parallels. It’s not to be missed.
What's the most exotic bird you've ever seen and why is it so special?
The Resplendent Quetzal! I saw it in the mountains of Costa Rica. The males are about the same size as a robin, and even redder underneath, but with emerald green on top. And they have three feet long feathers streaming behind them from their tail.
Not too many Black people are known for bird watching. Why is it so fascinating for all races to enjoy?
Birds, with their unparalleled ability to fly, are the ultimate symbol of freedom, so if anyone should appreciate them, it’s us Black folks who have been fighting for our freedom for so long. Look at it this way: The birds belong to no one, but they are for everyone to enjoy, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity, sex, age, religion, disability status (one of the extraordinary birders in the show is blind) or any other fundamental characteristic. The birds don’t care. They don’t care about your immigration status; many birds migrate thousands of miles each year. Borders mean nothing to them.
How can our people get more involved in watching these amazing creatures?
African Americans have been underrepresented in birding for too long, but happily, that’s starting to change. Black Birders Week happens every year around the first week of June, and there are local birding groups, like In Color Birding Club in the Philadelphia area, or the BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin, that are all about getting more of us out there. And Outdoor Afro has events in many places across the country, including birding outings. The head of the ornithology department at Harvard University is Scott Edwards, an African American who crossed the country on a bicycle while birding. So we belong out there just as much as anybody else. If seeing me in Extraordinary Birder and reading my memoir Better Living Through Birding inspires more Black people to get out there and look and listen for our birds, then I can’t hope for a better outcome.
Looking back at the park ‘incident’ how do you see it now? It's ironically opened doors for you to talk about Black, civil and LGBTQ+ issues.
That’s exactly it. Once the incident happened, I had two choices: hide under a rock until it all blew over or take it and use it to speak in the clearest voice I could about the things I’d already spent years fighting for—justice for Black people, equality for queer people and appreciation and protection for the wonderful birds we share this world with. I choose the latter.
Extraordinary Birder premieres Saturday, June 17, at 10/9c on Nat Geo WILD and streaming on June 21 on Disney+.
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