Below the current week’s bird video and photos, there’s a review of Christian Cooper’s new book, Better Living Through Birding, Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World. And here is your link to the Chavez Park Conservancy’s Draft Annual Report for 2023, just published.
No other bird feeds on thistles in the park, as far as I’ve seen. The Lesser Goldfinches have this mealticket all to themselves. And they love thistles. I saw another Lesser Goldfinch go to town on a thistle this past September. Studies have shown that in the right time and place, thistle seeds make up half of their diet. Thistle seeds are hard work. They’re very small and the birds have to pry them out of a thick, spiny seedhead. This pair of finches on the north shore of the park went at the work with high energy. I salute them and wish them bon appetit, because we have too many thistles. Every thistle seed in a finch is a thistle seed not in the soil. (I’m assuming that the birds actually digest the seeds and don’t just pass them unprocessed out the other end.) These finches are 98 percent vegetarian. They eat seeds of many kinds, including every kind of weed seed they can get their beaks around. That makes them very welcome guests in the park.
Some Other Birds Seen This Week
Mouse over or tap on the image to see the caption with the bird’s ID
Book Review: Christian Cooper’s Better Living Through Birding
Christian Cooper’s encounter with the owner of an off-leash dog in New York’s Central Park on May 25 2020 flashed like a stroke of lighting across the troubled skies of the American conscience. As Cooper’s cell phone recorded video, the dog owner falsely told police on her phone that a Black man was threatening her life. By a coincidence that speaks of the density of racism across the country, this event happened the same day that police murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, also while a cell phone video recorded the event.
Floyd died. Cooper walked away. Cooper’s video went viral on social media, and within days the public reaction catapulted him into a national figure. A lifetime birder working a day job as a science writer, he rose to become producer and host of a birding program for National Geographic and a public speaker. This book, Better Living Through Birding, Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World (Random House 2023), is his memoir.
Cooper grew up on Long Island, the New York City suburb, to parents with a modest income as teachers. He took an early interest in nature. Red-winged Blackbirds triggered his fascination with birds. Attending mostly white public schools, he developed the protective shell of a nerd, keeping his nose in books and scoring top grades. He stayed away from alcohol and drugs. He won early acceptance to Harvard. He also came to realize as a boy that he was gay. He guarded this secret at all costs until the gay club at Harvard eased his road to coming out. He relates that his straight and white roommates accepted and supported him.
Cooper seized every opportunity to see the world, partly to see new birds, partly just to see. He gives a vivid travelog of the night life of Buenos Aires, where he had his first more-than-casual relationship with a man. In Australia he met kind and generous souls, and caught some of the Aboriginal spirituality surrounding the Uluru formation. He views with awe the crater of Ngorongoro at the edge of the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa, where the earliest homo sapiens thrived. He experiences the Iguazu Falls, the immense waterfall bordering Argentina and Brazil, the remote Osa peninsula of Costa Rica teeming with wildlife, the Galapagos Islands, and the foothills of the Himalaya at 15,000 feet, among other destinations.
Much of the fun in reading this book comes from Cooper’s time working at Marvel Comics. As a kid he loved the sci-fi and horror genres, and displayed a lurid imagination in his own stories and poems. Through a Harvard friend he gains a starter job at Marvel Comics, eventually working his way up to editor and then writer of superhero comics. He introduces the first openly gay superhero in a minor Marvel publication, causing a PR meltdown, but keeps his job. He is laid off along with others in a Marvel corporate shrinkage, but later is rehired as a freelancer, and creates the first gay superheroes that Marvel blesses and promotes, opening the gates to a broader and more popular gay literature. On two occasions, he takes part in gay protest demonstrations and is briefly arrested. Much later, needing a steady income, he becomes a writer/editor for a medical company.
Both of Cooper’s parents were lifelong supporters of African American civil rights. He attended civil rights demonstrations already as a baby in a stroller. We learn about a moody and emotionally abusive father, a supportive but increasingly distant mother, and the breakup of their marriage. Consciousness of America’s history of slavery, racial terrorism, segregation and discrimination infuses Cooper’s story. He learns that Central Park, his favorite birding spot, was built in part by expropriating and evicting a mostly Black housing settlement. Weighing the danger that faced him when the dog owner lied to the police that a Black man was threatening her life, he cites a long list of Black men, women, and youths shot by police simply because they were Black. Birding while Black could have had a fatal outcome.
As someone who has had numerous occasions to ask dog owners to please leash their dogs in our Berkeley park, I can relate to Cooper’s everyday experiences with certain dog owners while birding in Central Park. Although the law requires dogs on leash everywhere in Central Park other than in a few fenced dog runs, violations occur daily. There is virtually no enforcement. It’s up to the birders to protect the habitat. The problem, Cooper points out, is that “birders are, by and large, insanely nice people.” And the responses in New York are totally familiar:
“Oh, not [insert dog’s name]. S/He wouldn’t hurt a fly!”
“The birds are in the trees. My dog doesn’t bother them.”
“Mind your own business.”
“Are you a park ranger? A cop? No? Then I don’t have to listen to you.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
There must be a manual where irresponsible dog owners study up these responses.
I also resonate with Cooper’s analysis. He says,
“To be clear, the problem is not the dogs; they can’t be faulted for wanting to run free and do all the things that dogs naturally do. The fault lies with the irresponsible dog owners. To further clarify, about a third of dog owners are respectful of the park and their fellow park goers, keeping their dog on the leash in protected areas. Another third will leash their dog when asked, either resentfully or claiming they didn’t know the rules. (In fact, they almost always know; the signage is everywhere, except where it’s been pulled down by the Fido Uber Alles crowd.) The other third is that special breed … who are accustomed to having things their way and who see their dog as an extension of themselves and their privilege. Their sense of entitlement is matched only by their apparent delusion that a leash is strictly a fashion accessory to be draped artfully around one’s own neck, rather than attached to their dog’s.”
It helps in Central Park that the birders frequently form groups massing around a spot where a rare bird lurks, and thereby achieve some force of numbers. Ten birders asking a dog owner to please respect the park rules make more of an impact than one. The Central Park birders also have a trick up their sleeve that’s new to me. They sometimes carry dog treats. If an owner won’t leash a dog, they’ll squat and offer the dog a yummy treat. This drives the owners crazy. They’re losing control of their dog and they worry that the dog will be poisoned. Only solution: leash the dog. It sometimes works.
After the notorious incident that went viral, Cooper had some other encounters with dog owners who arguably qualified for a loony bin. But the situation improved. The Park governing body encouraged people to video every case of an illegally off leash dog and its owner, and this seems to have reduced the number of leash violations. There are still cases where rambling dogs flush beautiful migrating warblers from the grasses, but not so many.
Christian Cooper joins James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, among others, as a gay African American man thrust into the public eye. There is much of Baldwin and of Rustin in Cooper: an intense consciousness of his people’s history and the ability to write persuasively and engagingly about it. Thanks to generations of LGBTQ+ activists, Cooper is able to be open and public about his sexuality to a degree that neither Baldwin nor Rustin saw fit to do. With his dedication to birding, Cooper adds a new chapter to the anthology of gay Black male life stories in our time. Cooper’s helpful “birding tips” and his many anecdotes about particular birds will no doubt pave the way for many a kid or grownup, gay or straight, to acquire a set of binoculars and get more closely acquainted with the enviable creatures who, to be free, have only to spread their wings.
There are some related issues that deserve mention in this context. Recent research has established that the color line in real estate laid down during the New Deal reliably predicts where rare and sought-after birds like migrating warblers will be found, namely in affluent white neighborhoods, and not where most Black people live. Historical research, notably by Professor J. Drew Lanham, a Black birder whom Cooper mentions, shows that John James Audubon bought, owned, and sold enslaved African Americans, defended slavery, opposed abolition, and in other ways proved himself an outspoken racist. These and related disclosures have led many local Audubon chapters to drop that name. The Bird Names for Birds movement has urged, with recent success, that birds should not be made into living statues for despicable racists like Audubon, John Bachman, John Townsend, and others. The reader expecting coverage of these issues, which are aspects of racism within birding, will come away disappointed from Cooper’s otherwise engaging and instructive memoir.
Owl Satire by Carol Denney
One of Carol Denney’s many hats is Chavez Park Conservancy Board member and decades-long park activist. Another is her alter ego Grace Underpressure, a/k/a publisher and editor of Pepper Spray Times, arguably Berkeley’s funniest, longest-running, and smallest-circulation humor sheet. In the January 2024 issue, she takes on the brief December 4 visit of a Burrowing Owl to the Burrowing Owl Sanctuary in the northeast corner of the park.