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“Better Living Through Birding”: Christian Cooper on Being a Queer Black Man in the Natural World

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Image Credit: Left: National Geographic

We continue our conversation with Christian Cooper, author of Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World and host of the Emmy Award-winning show Extraordinary Birder. Cooper shares stories of his life and career, including his longtime LGBTQ activism and how his father’s work as a science educator inspired his lifetime passion for birdwatching. “Birding forces you outside of yourself [and] whatever your woes are,” says Cooper. “It makes you feel connected to the whole planet. It engages your senses, your intellect. It is incredibly healing. … For people whose history is about being enslaved, for us to be able to relate to this bird, it’s liberating.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. We’re continuing our conversation with Christian Cooper, author of Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World. He talked about how he got into birding.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: My father was a science teacher for his whole life, and for a good stretch of that, a biology teacher, so nature was always very important to him. And he took us camping a lot as kids. So nature was always very important in our household. For me, for whatever reason, it took the particular form of birds. I built a bird feeder and put it up in the backyard. And I saw this bird coming to it. And it was all black with a patch of red on the wings. And I was like, “I’ve discovered this new species of crow!” And I was, like, excited with my, you know, tour de force of youthful scientific discovery, and then found out it was red-winged blackbird. But it’s still one of my favorite birds to this day. And that’s what you would call my spark bird, which is — in the lingo of birdwatchers, that’s the bird that gets you started birding. And after that, it was just sort of like going down the rabbit hole. So, that’s what started it, at about 9 or 10, and I just kept at it.

And then my dad took me to the bird walks of the South Shore Audubon Society, which at the time were led by this guy named Elliott Kutner, who was just like ebullience personified. And he took one look at me and my interest in birds, and he was like, “This one’s mine!” And from then on, you know, it was — he was great. He nurtured that and that interest.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And how did it come to serve as a kind of — because you mention that several times in the book — as a kind of refuge from the different forms of marginalization or exclusion that you felt, both as a Black man and also as someone who’s queer?

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Yeah, and also it was a part of the marginalization, ironically, because, you know, being a birder in the ’70s in junior high and high —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: It’s true.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: — is not going to make you the most popular kid on the planet.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: No, you’re right.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: No, but what it is — and this is true for everybody, I would say — is that birding forces you outside of yourself, whatever your woes are. For me, it was, you know, being in the closet, because I knew I was gay from like the age of 5. So, for me, it was being in the closet. You know, if you’re worried about your rent, if you’re worried about, you know, “Oh my god, my life is a misery. I have this illness,” or whatever, and then you get outside, and you’re looking for birds. And so, first of all, you’re in this beautiful natural setting, or semi-natural setting, so that calms you down, takes you outside yourself. But then, if you want to see birds, you’ve got to focus. You’ve got to be listening and looking, or else you’re not going to see any birds. And when you do that, you’re engaging with the world around you in such a way that, whatever those woes are, for at least a little while, they fall away. And it’s very meditative. It’s transporting. It makes you feel connected to the whole planet. It engages your senses, your intellect. It is incredibly healing.

And that’s one of the reasons why I’m like, “Black people, do this!” Because if there’s anybody in this society that needs healing, that needs to have our woes fall away for a while, it’s us. And then add the fact that, you know, birds are the ultimate symbol of freedom, because there is no part of the planet that is inaccessible to them. They can fly. They are symbols of freedom. So, for a people whose history is about being enslaved, for us to be able to relate to this bird, it’s liberating. So, that’s why I think birding was so important for me as a kid, and why I just think everybody, but particularly Black people, should be birding in droves.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve become head of the Harvard Ornithological Society, the Club?

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Yes. I have to put a caveat on that, because, you know, there were like three or four of us. So it’s not like some epic accomplishment.

AMY GOODMAN: But you also come out to your roommates and your friends there. And talk about those moments. Talk about —

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: — the humanity of that, as we’re in the middle of Pride Month right now, in the middle of June. And we also want to talk about the activism of ACT UP and the LGBTQ community, even beyond specifically LGBTQ issues, but it becomes a paradigm for activism right through to today.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Well, and remember that, you know, that paradigm was picked up from the Vietnam antiwar movement and from the civil rights movement and from the feminist movement. So, you know, it’s a strand of activism that goes way back. And, you know, the LGBTQ community, we’ve been able to pick it up and keep it going. And who knows who will pick it up after us? But — well, the trans community is picking it up. They’re part — I consider them part of the — well, they’re the “T” in LGBT. But, you know, they’re the ones who are really under attack right now. And they are fighting fiercely and boldly and wonderfully and happily and with joy, more often than not. And it’s glorious to see.

It’s often said that the greatest act of activism that someone who’s queer can perform is to come out and be out and live out. And so, for me, that was really the turning point in college. Freshman year, I had hoped to go to Harvard and finally break out of the suffocating closet that I was in. The only person who knew that I was gay was Deb, and I had only told her like the second semester of senior year in high school. So, I’m like, “All right, whole new life in Harvard.” And I get to Harvard, I’m making these great friends, and I’m back in the closet. And the metaphor I always use is, being in the closet felt like being buried alive, because you know you’re there, but nobody else knows. They’re like walking over your grave and don’t even realize it, and you are banging on that, that coffin lid, wanting, needing to be let out, and you can’t get out, and nobody hears you. That’s the experience of being in the closet.

So, I was done with it by about one semester, my first semester freshman year. I’m like, “Something has to give, or I’m going to, you know, not make it.” So I went to each my roommates, one by one, and told them, “You know, look” — because we were talking about rooming together the next year. And I said, “Well, then, there’s something you need to know, which is that I’m gay.” And they all took a while. The last one I told was my friend Mike, and we actually shared a bedroom. And he was like, “Ha, ha, ha!” because we were always, you know, pulling gags on each other. He’s like, “Ha, ha, ha!” And I was like — and he said, “Really?” I said, “Yeah, really.” And there was this pause, where you could see his brain kind of working through it. And then, finally, he said, “It’s cool.” And that was it. And from then on, you know, we were just a group of guys who were bonded together and stayed together for the four years of college.

AMY GOODMAN: Which takes us to the Extraordinary Birder. Talking about television for a minute, you have now starred in this National Geographic series. And congratulations for getting this Daytime Emmy in the Outstanding Daytime Personality category. So, despite what you say, you are an extraordinary birder.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Well, you haven’t seen my nighttime personality. It’s horrifying! But —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to turn to the introduction that plays at the beginning of each episode of Extraordinary Birder.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Look at all those ravens.

I’m Christian Cooper, and I am a birder.

Ah, that was cool!

My dad was a biology teacher and gave me my first pair of binoculars when I was about 10 years old, and I never put them down.

Wow! Not something I’ve seen in my life.

Now I’m traveling the globe to explore the world of birds —

That’s amazing. It’s like a cloud.

— and their relationship with us, those of us who don’t have wings. And along the way, I’ll show you what I adore about these crazy smart —

Your first look at the outside world!

— dazzling — 

It’s fantabulous!

— and superpowered feathered creatures.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip from the Extraordinary Birder episode called “Birds of Puerto Rico,” again, hosted by our guest, Christian Cooper.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: The best part of birding on an island is finding species that can’t be found anywhere else. We birders call them endemics. This place is home to 17 endemic species of birds, and I’m hoping to spot a few of them to add to my life list.

The Puerto Rican parrot is a special bird. With its bright green and blue feathers and red striped brow, it’s the pride of all Puerto Ricans. Way back, the island’s Taíno Indians named it iguaca, after the squawking sound it makes when it flies. Sadly, nature has dealt the iguaca a bit of a rough hand. And between hurricanes, hungry predators and a lack of environment protection, they were down to just 13 birds in the wild in the early 1970s. Now there’s a plan to bring them back.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from Extraordinary Birder, National Geographic series. Christian Cooper just won an Emmy for this series. It’s amazing. So, tell us the countries that you went to for this series.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Well, that’s the thing. Because it was COVID and because of budget, they kept us domestic for the season. So, we went to Palm Springs, California; New York City; Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; Hawaii — oh, boo hoo, boo hoo, I had to go to Hawaii — and Alabama. And the Alabama episode was the most important to me, because that was the collision not just of birding, but of family history and civil rights history. And you would be surprised how these things can inform each other. And we explored that a little bit in the episode. I had gone down to Alabama a year earlier at the invitation of Alabama Audubon. And the experience for me was so enlightening, but I wanted to recreate it for the viewers. So the Alabama episode is my favorite.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us more about Alabama and how all these worlds intersect.

CHRISTIAN COOPER: Sure. Well, for example, I walked across, for the first time, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which is where Bloody Sunday happened. And so, I’m walking across and thinking about what happened on this bridge. And meanwhile, there are cliff swallows that are nesting underneath it. And I realized, you know, these cliff swallows were probably here all those years ago, and they witnessed. They were there. They were part of that history, to be there when all that happens. So, there’s that connection.

Then there’s other things, like my father’s family. You know, we’re all Northerners for generations. But you go far enough back in the history of any African Americans, and our roots are in the South. And my dad’s father’s side of the family came from Alabama, but I had never been. And I didn’t want to go, because I’m like, “My family left there for a reason.” I had never been to the Deep South. But the chance to go in the tender arms of Alabama Audubon made it — I’m like, “Well, if there’s ever going to be a chance to go, this is it.” So I went.

And it was fascinating to see what expectations were violated, what expectations were affirmed —  for example, walking around in Birmingham, and there are all these cafes with rainbow flags in the window. And I’m like, “Wait, wait. What?” But, you know, that actually makes sense, because, you know, you go across the country, and in the urban areas, they tend to be pretty progressive and actually very welcoming of queer people. But then you go outside. Even if you’re in New York, you know, you’re here in the city, and it’s very welcoming to queer people, but if you go to regions upstate, you know, there are parts where it’s redder than red Iowa, or something like that. So, you know, that was a revelation to me.

But then other things, like the fact that, you know, my family had left Alabama and come to the North. Why? Because there was — you know, that was part of the Great Migration, when Black people left the South for opportunity in the North, economic opportunity, jobs, and to escape oppression. That’s exactly what birds do every year. That’s why they migrate. They leave the South for the North, because there are resources in the North that they exploit to raise their young and be more successful and pass on a better life to the next generation. That’s why Black people left the South. And we even use the same word, “migration,” for the birds, the “Great Migration” for Black people. So, things like that, you know, just all sort of collide and inform each other and change your view of things.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And then, you know, as you said earlier, for the National Geographic series, you weren’t able to travel abroad because of COVID and so on. But you did — and you write about it in the book — you did actually go to several countries on your own, including Nepal, Tanzania. You said earlier that you had also been to Belize. I mean, these are countries that are at the forefront of the climate crisis, which is, of course, also threatening all forms of nature, including birds. So, if you could say a little about what you saw in these places — and this is obviously a limited number; I imagine you’ve been to many other places to bird — and the concerns you have about the climate crisis and the threat that it poses to bird life?

CHRISTIAN COOPER: The best example I can give you is a trip I took in December down to Antarctica. I know. It was amazing. It’s like visiting a different planet. But we got down there, and I was sort of, you know, a special guest on the boat, and so I wanted to be helpful to the other people on the ship and tell them, “All right, we’re going to make our landing at this particular spot.” And I researched what kind of penguins we were going to see there. And I said to everybody, “All right, well, this is the penguin we’re likely to see at this spot.” And we get there. I said, “This is a colony of Adélie penguins.” And we get there, and it’s almost entirely gentoo penguins. And I’m like, “Ugh, I botched that completely.” The penguin researcher on the boat said to me, “No, you don’t understand. I was here two years ago, and that colony was almost entirely Adélie penguins.”

Adélie penguins are true Antarctic penguins. They rely on ice for making their livelihood. Gentoo penguins are what they call sub-Antarctic penguins. And the lack of ice is what lets them spread. So, the fact that in two years that colony had converted almost entirely from Adélie penguins, the Antarctic penguins, to gentoo penguins is a sign of just how quickly climate change is happening, particularly down there, because it’s changing faster at the poles than anyplace else. So, we were able to see in real time ourselves that our climate is changing way faster than most creatures can adapt. And, you know, there will be winners and losers. You know, gentoo penguins, at least for a while, are going to have an advantage. But what’s scary is that most species can’t adapt to change successfully that’s that fast, including us.

AMY GOODMAN: Christian Cooper, author of Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World. He’s just won an Emmy for his National Geographic series Extraordinary Birder. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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