Christian Cooper could charm birds from the trees

The mere mention of some people’s names brings a smile to my face. Christian Cooper’s brings several.

“My name is Christian Cooper, and I am a birder,” is how he opens his National Geographic series “Extraordinary Birder.”

I’ve done some “lite” birdwatching in my time but still didn’t expect Cooper’s ornithological tours to be so addictive. He’s a great explainer who brings warmth and humor to deeply scientific subjects. And he has that gorgeous National Geographic photography to back him up.

But it was a very different and ugly circumstance in 2020 that first delivered fame to this former Marvel Comics editor. Cooper was birding in a wild corner of New York’s Central Park when he came upon a woman whose dog was not on its leash, as the law requires.

When he asked her to leash the dog, she threatened to call the police on him. You see, Cooper is Black, and the woman, Amy Cooper (no relation), is white.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life,” Cooper said she told him. He said go ahead, and videoed her lifting her dog by the collar.

The New York City police arrived and quickly figured out what Amy was up to — trying to use a racial stereotype to exact revenge on someone who called her out for breaking a park rule. They called animal rescue, which briefly took the dog away.

When the real story got out, Amy started getting death threats. Christian urged people on social media to stop harassing her. Amy had issued an apology, which he accepted. While recognizing the racism behind her action, he generously attributed it to “spectacularly poor judgement.” She was clearly not entirely well in the head.

Who among us would have been able to exhibit such self-control? That, Christian’s warm charm and his obvious expertise on birds led to his National Geographic series. The second episode, about the birds in New York City, featured a brief shot of the field in Central Park where the conflict took place and made a reference to it so indirect that most in the audience probably wouldn’t have caught it.

“My dad was a biology teacher and gave me my first pair of binoculars when I was 10 years old,” Cooper says at the opening of his series. That’s how he became a lifelong birder — and undoubtedly developed his teaching skills.

The birds themselves can seem like characters, each with its own personality. Some are beautiful. Some are fierce. And some, like a certain pelican in Puerto Rico, virtually cuddled with a human friend.

Cooper explained why he and his colleagues call themselves birders rather than the older term, birdwatchers. “It’s not just watching,” he said “It’s listening.”

To nail down that point, Cooper introduces us to Jose Salguero, a bird expert in Puerto Rico who was legally blind. Salguero couldn’t really see the birds but recognized species by their calls. Here’s a gray kingbird. There’s a northern mockingbird. Salguero’s ears reportedly do a better job of matching hoots, chirps and trills to a species than the computers interpreting data from “nanny cams” placed in sanctuaries.

We whose brains are exploding from all the painful war news and nasty domestic politics would do well to join Cooper in an escape to the natural world. “Extraordinary Birder” isn’t just about the feathered creatures. It’s about the rain forests, seashore, fields, and even skyscrapers and bridges where birds make their nests. It’s about the big picture.

The six-part series can be seen on Hulu and Disney Plus.

As a leading educator on birds — and humanity as well — Christian Cooper has earned his wings.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected].