“Extraordinary Birder gives an understanding, a way to look at the world that most people don't have,” said Christian Cooper of his new Nat Geo WILD series during a TCA press conference in January. A Harvard graduate and former Marvel Comics editor, Christian Cooper unexpectedly went viral when a white woman in Central Park called the police on him. He was doing what he loves, bird watching, and is now using the platform he didn’t ask for to help inspire a new generation of bird watchers, particularly people of color.
“There’s an awful deficit of Black birders in this country,” Christian Cooper explained. In addition to being a civil rights activist, Christian has been a driving force in equality for LGBTQ+ people, having served on the board of GLAAD in the ‘80s. The beauty of bird watching is that anyone can do it. It’s a hobby that doesn’t discriminate, regardless of color, gender, orientation, or even ability. “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. It will elevate your perspective, and it will change the way you perceive the world.”
Christian discovered his love of birds at a young age, thanks to a class project. “I had to build either a footstool or a bird feeder,” he revealed about the shop class assignment. “happily, I built the bird feeder, put it up, filled it with seed, and kept wondering what all the crows with red on their wings were.” 10-year-old Christian was on a mission to find out more about these birds, which turned up it to be red-winged blackbirds, his spark bird. “My dad was a biology teacher, so nature was always big in our household. But, for me, it took the particular form of birds, and he encouraged that over the years, and it just snowballed from there. So it's been a lifelong passion. And I know how it has enriched my life. So I love to spread the gospel of birding, as I like to call it, and I would love to see so many more people have it enrich their lives as well.”
His parents supported Christian’s bird-watching hobby, allowing him to terraform his backyard to attract different types of birds. “[My birding mentor] got me, to my parents' indulgence, to dig a trench in my backyard, hook up a garden hose, and have it drip to create a personal little Mississippi River running in my backyard. And my parents, I'm sure, were, like, thrilled to have their backyard dug up like this. But that little watercourse, the sound of water will pull in all kinds of birds that don't eat seeds, who are insect eaters. They come in to bathe, to refuel, to drink. So I would sit there for hours at my window and just watch the birds come in.”
Now, Christian Cooper is globetrotting with National Geographic, visiting bucket list destinations for serious bird watchers. Puerto Rico and Hawaii are both featured in the season, but he also found a lot of magic around his home in New York City. “We filmed on top of the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan. We never would have gotten access except for Nat Geo. They actually shut down a lane of traffic during rush hour on the bridge so we could go up, which was pretty awesome.”
Having a film crew and the support of Nat Geo also made it easier for Christian to visit a place his ancestors once fled. “We did an episode where we went down to Alabama. I'm a New Yorker, born in New York, raised in the Long Island suburbs. My family are all Northern people, but you go far back enough in the ancestry of any African American, and our roots are from somewhere in the South. And my father's roots are actually — that side of the family — are in Alabama. I had never been. I was, like, ‘My people left there for a reason. I don't want to go down there.’ But we went. And walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was tremendously powerful for me because my dad has passed; my mom has passed. They were both very active in the Civil Rights Movement. I don't think any of them had ever been there, and here I was, walking across this monumental bridge. And it was interesting because nesting underneath that bridge were cliff swallows. And I was thinking, you know, these cliff swallows have probably been nesting under this bridge year after year, decade after decade. They were here when everything that went down on this bridge, when all that violence happened when Black people were beaten down. Those birds were witness to that, and they're still here. And it was just a confluence of personal and Civil Rights and a lot of emotional stuff coming at me all at once, which is why we wanted to go down to Alabama.”
Powerful stories like that are what await viewers in Extraordinary Birder with Christian Cooper. “It is one small step, and that's all it takes: a step outside your door or to your window,” Christian shared about how to get started with bird watching. “It's great to have binoculars, but you don't even have to have those. You just need to engage with the birds that are outside your window and in the world around you. However, you can get them. Put a bird feeder out, or just look at what's in your yard, or go to your local park. That's all it takes. And what we're hoping is that Extraordinary Birder will inspire tons of people to do just that.”
Extraordinary Birder with Christian Cooper premieres tonight at 10/9c on NatGeo WILD. Disney+ subscribers can start streaming the series on June 21st.