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Christian Cooper: An ‘Extraordinary Birder’ with Extraordinary Goals

Three years ago, Christian Cooper was thrust into the national spotlight because of a video showing a white woman calling the police on him. In a frantic voice, she claimed that “an African American man” was recording and threatening her and her dog. “Please, send the cops immediately!” she said. 

But he wasn’t threatening her. He was birdwatching. And although he did film her, he started after their confrontation began. He asked her to leash her dog and pointed to signs requiring it in the protected wildlife area of Central Park. She declined and it escalated from there. 

In response, many began referring to the woman as “Central Park Karen” because of what seemed to be entitled behavior and judged her actions as an attempt to leverage her race against him. Social critics even likened it to a horrific moment in American history: the lynching of Emmitt Till, which started because a white woman claimed the black teen flirted with her.

Today, Cooper hosts “Extraordinary Birder with Christian Cooper,” a show scheduled to premiere on Sunday on Nat Geo Wild. But it raises the question: how did Cooper emerge from being subjected to an ugly encounter to hosting a television show about his love of birding? If you ask him, he’ll say he was given a platform and seized the opportunity. 

In an interview with Outdoors.com, Cooper explained that for decades before the “incident,” he had been a prominent member of New York’s bird-watching community and sharing his passion with students in the city’s public schools. 

“The way I tend to put it is, if you’re gonna stick all those microphones and cameras in my face, then I’m gonna use it to say what I think needs to be said,” he said. “And whether that’s about racial justice or equality for queer people, or a love of birds and how we should all be enjoying them and protecting them, I’m going to say it.”

Cooper’s passion for birding

Cooper started birding when he was around 10 years old. With a science teacher for a dad, he developed an appreciation of nature early in life. In fact, it led him to find his “spark bird” — the bird that got him interested in birding.

“I had built this bird feeder and put it up in the backyard, and all of a sudden I kept wondering what all these crows with a patch of red at the shoulder of the wing were and I was like, ‘I’ve discovered a new species of crow. How exciting for me!’” he said. “And then of course, I found out they were Red Wing blackbirds . . . that got the ball rolling.”

What keeps him going back time and time again are “the seven pleasures of birding,” which he details at length in his book Better Living Through Birding: Notes From A Black Man In The Natural World and the 2012 documentary Birders: The Central Park Effect. They include the beauty of birds, the natural setting, the thrill of the chase, the joy of collecting, problem-solving, the pleasure of scientific discovery, and the seventh is sometimes called the unicorn effect. 

Cooper described that last one as an adrenaline rush because it means finding something you’ve only heard about or seen in photos. “(The bird) takes on this almost mythological status in your head . . . and then one day you’re out in the woods and flap this bird lands in front of you and it’s the bird that’s only existed in your imagination up until that moment,” he said. The rush — that’s the seventh pleasure of birding.”

An extraordinary birder with extraordinary goals

With his upcoming show Extraordinary Birder, Cooper travels all over the country to explore the unpredictable world of birds. While he hopes to inspire people of all sorts to share his passion, he also wants them to understand how important birds are to the world. He explained from the time he started birding to today, North America has lost a third of its bird population

“I’d love to see us stop that decline and reverse it and start to bring the birds back. And I think that would be a benefit to all of us because birds are a great indicator of the health of our environment in general,” he said. “So if we’re bringing the birds back, we’ll bring ourselves back from the brink, and I think that would be great.”

Extraordinary Birder with Christian Cooper” premieres June 17, 2023, on Nat Geo Wild. Check it out here.

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