Annabelle teaches Christian Cooper how to make sugar water for the Costa Hummingbird feeders in her front yard in Palm Springs, CA in EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER WITH CHRISTIAN COOPER | ©2023 National Geographic/Jon Kroll

Annabelle teaches Christian Cooper how to make sugar water for the Costa Hummingbird feeders in her front yard in Palm Springs, CA in EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER WITH CHRISTIAN COOPER | ©2023 National Geographic/Jon Kroll

Individuals who are serious about observing the avian species do not call what they do “birdwatching.” Instead, it is “birding,” and the people involved are “birders.” This brings us to the new series EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER WITH CHRISTIAN COOPER, which premieres its first six-episode season Saturday, June 17, on National Geographic Wild, then on Disney+ on June 21.

Native New Yorker Cooper is both host and co-producer on EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER. He has been a professional science writer and editor, and also wrote for Marvel Comics. Cooper’s autobiographical book, BETTER LIVING THROUGH BIRDING: NOTES FROM A BLACK MAN IN THE NATURAL WORLD, was published earlier this year.

Cooper first came to international attention in May, 2020, when he was birding in Central Park. When he politely asked a woman to leash her dog in an area where unleashed dogs were prohibited, the woman, who is white, responded by calling the police and falsely claiming that Cooper was somehow intimidating her. The incident brought Cooper a lot of unlooked-for but sympathetic publicity.

In a Q&A session held by National Geographic Wild during the Television Critics Association (TCA) 2023 winter press tour in Pasadena, California, Cooper explains, “My attitude has always been, ‘Okay. If all these people are going to shove microphones and cameras in my face, I’m going to use it to say what I think needs to be said, and that’s important.’ And that was initially to talk about race relations and try to shed some illumination on that. And now it’s about getting people to look at birds, because that’s really what has been a trajectory through my whole life, getting people to get out there, regardless of who you are, regardless of your skin color – because there’s an awful deficit of Black birders in this country – regardless of your sexual orientation, regardless of your ability or disability. For example, when we go to Puerto Rico in EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER, we meet up with a birder who is blind, who uses his ears to identify the birds, to great effect.  So, if I’m going to have this visibility, let me use it to get people out there, out their front door, looking at birds, because it will change your life.”

Following the Q&A, Cooper sits down for a one-on-one discussion of EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER WITH CHRISTIAN COOPER.

ASSIGNMENT X: How did you get into birding?

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Nature was always big in our household when I was a kid, because my dad was a science teacher, and for a long time, specifically a biology teacher. When I was about ten years old, I built a bird feeder for some reason in wood shop, I put that in the backyard, filled it up with seed, and I noticed that there were all these black birds with red on their wings coming down. I was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve discovered a new species of crow!” And I was so excited. And then I found out, “Oh, they’re actually red-winged blackbirds. I haven’t discovered a new species.” But it’s still one of my favorite birds, and it’s what we call in the birding lingo your “spark bird,” the bird that started you on birding.

Both my parents were schoolteachers, so they had summers off. So, not long after that, we packed my mom, my dad, my sister, me, and the family cocker spaniel into one of those little Volkswagen Westphalia campers, and we spent the whole summer doing a cross-country round trip. Not a lot of room, but one of the few things we had in the car book-wise was a PETERSON FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS. And so, a lot of driving, flipping through the book, an empty, young, impressionable mind, and by the time we hit the West Coast, a bird flew by when we were at a rest stop, and I said, “Oh, look, Mom, there goes a black-billed magpie.” “What? How does he know that?” I remembered the book. It just kept growing from that, and once my dad saw that interest, he nurtured it and took me to South Shore Audubon meetings and South Shore Audubon bird walks, and I got a birding mentor there, and it just grew.

AX: Did you study ornithology in college?

COOPER: The one ornithology class that was available in college, I took, but I was not going to make it a career. I didn’t want to turn my hobby into my job, because I thought that might spoil things for me. When I was at my college interview, I was very clear with the interviewer that I was going to become a lawyer, and I was going to work as a lawyer for many, many years until I retired, and then I was going to go back to school and become an ornithologist. That was my plan. It didn’t quite work out that way.

AX: But you didn’t become a lawyer …

COOPER: No, no [laughs]. Life had other things in store for me, like working at Marvel Comics, one of the best jobs I ever had. And a whole bunch of other things.

AX: What did you do at Marvel?

COOPER: I worked on a horror comic called DARKHOLD: PAGES FROM THE BOOK OF SINS, I wrote STAR TREK: STARFLEET ACADEMY, which was so much fun. We did a whole issue in Klingon.

AX: When did you make the transition into actual ornithology?

COOPER: Well, that’s the thing. I do not have a degree in ornithology. I am an amateur, like so many of the other birders out there. And I hope that is going to be one of the strengths I bring to the show. Because what I can do, because I know so much about birds, but I’m not a degreed ornithologist, I can bridge the gap between your average viewer and the experts, between their knowledge and the lay audience, and communicate some of their passion, and some of my own, to the audience.

AX: How did EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER come into existence?

COOPER: My phone rings one day, and it is Janet Vissering [Nat Geo Wild’s senior vice-president of program development and production]. She said, “Well, I’ve seen you a lot on TV, and I think you might be good for doing a birding show.” And I’m like, “Twist my arm” [laughs].

I’ve been preaching “the gospel of birding,” as I like to call it, for as long as I can remember. I do a lot of volunteer work in the New York City public schools with kids, taking them out, showing them the birds, so that they can understand that there is a whole world out there, right in their own backyards, that will change their life, that will elevate their perspective, and it’s theirs for the taking. It belongs as much to them as to anybody else. And so, since I’ve been doing that all along, when all these cameras and microphones got shoved in my face, I’m like, “I’m going to use it to get the message out which I think needs to be gotten out, which is, ‘Get out there and bird. Because it is everybody’s birthright.”’

AX: Most birds are not crazy about huge groups of humans tromping around and trying to look at them. So, how do you mediate the need for at least you and a camera person, and possibly a sound person, going and looking at the birds, and having the birds not just hide from you?

COOPER: You navigate it. When you go on a bird walk, it’s probably even more disruptive [than filming]. Our crew is relatively small, but bird walks can be groups of up to forty or, God help us, fifty people. There are some birds it will disturb. There are other birds that our human presence, transiently, is not going to impact them.

The one time it really did affect the show was when we were in Alabama. We were hoping to get really good, close-up views of swallow-tailed kites, which are magnificent birds. They just drift on the air like they were made for it. They’re black and white, with this fourth tail that looks like something out of some crazy artist’s dream. So, we saw the swallow-tailed kites coming in, and we were all excited. And none of us even thought of this, and we should have – the camera guys sent up a drone to get good shots, and the drone spooked the kites.

AX: Where do you go in EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER Season 1?

COOPER: We go to New York, Washington, D.C., Palm Springs and the Salton Sea, Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, and Alabama. Alabama was the most interesting on a number of levels, just because, even though I’m a Northern boy, like all African-Americans, my family has its roots in the South, and my family specifically in Alabama, but I had never been. I was always actually like, “My family left Alabama for a reason” [laughs]. But here we were. And it was really a fascinating experience. There are some interesting parallels and collisions between birding and civil rights history and family ancestry, and just it was a really fascinating experience.

AX: How do birding and civil rights overlap?

COOPER: I’ll give you an example. My family left Alabama as part of the Great Migration, when African-Americans left the South in huge numbers to move to the North. In my family’s case, half the family went to Chicago, half the family went to New York, because with industrialization, there were jobs, there were wages to be made, and there was an opportunity to raise your kids with less oppression, and more economic possibility.

Birds leave the South where they winter, and they return to the North, because suddenly, after the winter was over in the North, there were bugs, and that means food, and the opportunity to exploit resources, so that they can raise their young more successfully. That’s exactly why Black people left the South. The word “migration” is in both of those things for a reason.

And [filming in Alabama made possible] personal things, like walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge [the site of the first major U.S. civil rights march on March 7, 1965, and a bloody attack on the marchers by state and local law enforcement] – mind-blowing.

AX: So, you stayed generally in North America for Season 1?

COOPER: We were strictly domestic for the first season. If we get a second season, fingers crossed, I’d love to go international. So many places you can go, from Cuba, to see the smallest bird in the world, the Cuban bee hummingbird, to going down to Ecuador to see the harpy eagle, which actually I’ve already seen, but I would love to show the viewers.

AX: What birds are you most excited about that we see in the first season?

COOPER: I had this wonderful experience with peregrine falcons. Right in my hometown of New York, we went up to the top of the George Washington Bridge, where they have a nest box. Up at the top of this bridge, hundreds of feet above the Hudson River, there’s this vertiginous drop beneath you as you step out of the elevator. There’s an elevator in those towers that hold up the bridge. Who knew?

You walk out, there’s this drop, and then you’re looking around you, and there’s this sort of Fritz Lang METROPOLIS superstructure of girders zooming around you in this architectural form. And then you hear, amplified by this superstructure, you hear [Cooper imitates the falcon’s hoarse cry]. It’s the female peregrine, who is furious that we are close to her nest. She is zooming through this architectural superstructure, screaming her head off, that’s amplifying the sound of her voice, while the New York City skyline is on one side, and the Palisades are on the other, and the Hudson River is dropping below you.

AX: What excites you most about a species of bird?

COOPER: It’s a whole range of things. The first, most immediate thing is the appearance of the bird. That’s what you’re going to react to first. But there’s also the sounds they make. Some birds are known better for the sounds they make than for their appearance. The warbling vireo is incredibly bland to look at, but it’s got a very distinctive song. Other birds, it’s the context in which you see them. Like that peregrine falcon experience. A peregrine falcon is amazing unto itself, but to see it in that context? Just mind-blowing.

And then the behavior as well. There are some birds that do remarkable things. The first time I ever saw a motmot, I was in southern Mexico, and I had snuck into a place I wasn’t supposed to be before it opened, because I wanted to bird before the crowds got there. I looked under a bush, and there was this incredibly-colored tropical bird with a long tail, and it was swinging that tail back and forth, like a grandfather clock. The theory of why motmots do it is, they’re sending a signal to a predator. What they’re saying is, “Hey, predator, I know you’re here. Now you know that I know you’re here. So, don’t waste your time and mine. Don’t waste the energy, don’t come after me. I know.” So, yeah, it’s behavior, it’s sound, it’s the way they look, its habitat, all of it.

AX: Besides the red-winged blackbirds, do you have favorite birds?

COOPER: Sure. It’s hard to pick any one, but one of my favorites is the blackburnian warbler. It is a little tiny bird, smaller than a sparrow. All warblers are small birds, I like to think of them as butterflies with personality. The blackburnian is black, gray, and white, but with an incandescent Day-Glo fiery orange throat. When you get a male in good plumage, it’s mesmerizing. And its song is one of the highest-pitched songs there is. It’s seven notes, and the last note goes so high as to be almost inaudible to human ears. It has such urgency in that last note. It’s a living marvel.

It’s a bird that tends to stay at the tops of the trees. There was one, that for whatever reason was at eye level, and about this far away [indicates the top of the chair he’s in] from me. And it was not budging. It was just staying there, throwing its head back and singing. And I could not move for ten minutes, because I was mesmerized by the power of this bird. To me, all of the exuberance of the planet is poured into that little bird’s body, and then comes spilling out of it when it sings.

AX: Do you have personal interactions with birds – do you feed ducks, or do you prefer to look at them from a distance?

COOPER: I, above all, prefer my birds wild. I would not dream of taking that away from a bird. [With birds in captivity], you’re taking everything that is wonderful about a bird, that limitless freedom that they have to traverse anywhere, and putting it in a cage. I mean, why not take Picasso and cut off his hands?

[With feeding wild ducks], I think you’ve got to do it judiciously. There are some places where you definitely don’t want to feed the birds, because they become habituated to that. And it decreases their own ability to find food, but also, it makes them way too comfortable around people, and that can lead to all kinds of problems.

On the other hand, I have a hummingbird feeder. I spend the winter in Palm Springs lately, and the first thing I do when I get here is put up a hummingbird feeder. It does not inform the behavior of the bird, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Especially if you have some sort of disability that keeps you from getting out of the house, if you put up a bird feeder, you can bring the birds to your window.

AX: Have you been all over the world birding?

COOPER: I have. There’s only one continent I haven’t seen yet, and that’s Antarctica, and I’m fixing that this year.

AX: Are you in charge of where EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER goes?

COOPER: I wouldn’t say “in charge.” I am a consulting producer on the show, in addition to the host. Pretty much all the destinations in the first season are destinations I picked. But it’s in consultation with the other producers, and it depends. There are limits. We were limited to domestic for the first season of EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER.

I would love to take EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER down to Ecuador. We saw hummingbirds out the wazoo. There was one moment where they’d put up a bunch of feeders, and there were fifteen different species of hummingbirds around us at once, with long tails, or incredible crests. Hummingbirds, just by being hummingbirds, are amazing, in colors and patterns. I would love to share a moment like that with EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER. [For Season 1], we tried to settle on interesting bird stories, and interesting human stories. Where birds and humans meet, that’s where EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER lives.

AX: What sorts of humans do you meet on EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER?

COOPER: Oh, wow. Some amazing people. We talked to Bret Nainoa Mossman [Avian Technician for the Hawai’i Island Natural Area Reserve System] in Hawai’i, who is dedicating practically his life to trying to save what’s left of Hawai’i’s native birds. I knew Hawai’ian birds were in trouble, but I didn’t know until I got to Hawai’i that seventy-five percent of their native birds are already extinct, and he’s trying to save what’s left. And it’s not just scientific dedication, there’s a whole spiritual component to it. That was an experience that was amazing.

We met these wonderful folks in Puerto Rico, who took me to a waterfall, and behind the waterfall were nesting black swifts. That secrecy and protection blew my mind. Because I would have walked right by the beautiful tropical waterfall. There are birds back there, that’s where they live.

 And scientists in Puerto Rico are trying to save the iguaca, their endemic native parrot, that’s on the brink of extinction. They’ve fought, despite hurricane after hurricane that devastated the habitat, to keep this bird alive and bring it back. And they’re winning. So, in a story that’s full of bad environmental news, it’s nice to be able to tell these positive stories of progress because of what we people are doing, because people cause so much damage.

The name of the show is EXTRAORDINARY BIRDER. To me, the extraordinary birders are the people that I meet out in the field who are doing things like this. And that I get to bring their stories to an audience is tremendous. And then, the other aspect, I think, the extraordinary birders are just ordinary people who maybe just pick up binoculars every once in awhile and go out and look. I think that is what is so extraordinary about birders and birding, is that once you do it, your whole perception of the world changes.

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