The Christian Cooper Chronicles

Christian Cooper bands a Herring Gull with NYC Bird Alliance scientists atop the Javits network of green roofs as National Geographic documents it for an episode on Christian's Extraordinary Birder show.

The Christian Cooper Chronicles

This article appears in the summer 2023 issue of The Urban Audubon publication.

By Carol Peace Robins

Longtime birder and NYC Bird Alliance Board Member Christian Cooper became more widely known in 2020 as the target of the infamous “Central Park Birdwatching Incident” involving a white woman dialing 911 to report an African American man threatening her. That incident, coupled with George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis the same day, sparked conversations and protests across the country about racial justice and equity.

Now no stranger to the limelight, Chris will soon be more happily celebrated for his poignant memoir about the joys and healing powers of birding, as well as an illuminating National Geographic television series.

I recently spoke with Chris, who was in Palm Springs for the winter partly to be closer to his sister in L.A.—and partly because he hates the cold. He assured me he would be back to New York City and his Central Park birds this spring for prime-time migration.

We talked about his new book, Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World, arriving on June 13 from Penguin Random House. It’s the story of how a nine-year-old boy’s birding passion was sparked by a Red-winged Blackbird, a passion that helped him make it through high school as a closeted gay and self-described “openly nerdy” Black boy. Readers see the Marvel Comics-reading kid blossom into Marvel’s first openly gay writer and the creator of the first gay character in the Star Trek universe. Chris includes us in his travels around the world from Buenos Aires to Kathmandu, discovering new and exciting species. And flitting gracefully throughout the tale are Chris’s wise, been-there-done-that “Birding Tips” and his “Seven Pleasures of Birding.”

June also brings the first episode of Extraordinary Birder, National Geographic’s six-part documentary premiering June 17, on Nat Geo Wild and streaming on Disney+ starting June 21, starring Chris as host and guide through some of his favorite birding haunts in New York (of course), as well as Palm Springs, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Alabama. As for the title, Chris is emphatic that it’s not all about him, explaining that “extraordinary birders are the ones who mentored me on Long Island when I was a kid, and the real experts in Central Park who welcomed me.” Though episodes were not available at the time of writing for preview, Chris noted they’re not just about beautiful birds in scenic places, but also an exploration of the interactions between birds and “the farmers, biologists, and the truly extraordinary folks dedicated to birds’ conservation.”

Upon leaving Long Island after high school, Chris graduated from Harvard and went to work for Marvel Comics. Following his time at Marvel, Chris worked as a copy editor for a pharma-related medical education company for 20 years. He credits Jeff Kimball for his involvement with NYC Bird Alliance and his eventual election to the board of directors in 2016. Kimball, a NYC Bird Alliance Board Member and past president, is also the director of the 2012 film Birders: The Central Park Effect featuring Chris as one of the members of Central Park’s cozy group of “Regulars.” Kimball recognized a kindred spirit.

Chris’s home on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is not exactly convenient to Central Park, but it’s closer than Palm Springs. Every morning during spring migration, Chris heads for the park at daybreak. His excursions are usually without further “incidents”—unless you count getting to see a Kirtland’s Warbler a few years ago, a rare first-timer in the park. It was “a unicorn come alive before my own eyes.” An awe-inspiring incident indeed.