Learn About Urban Birding: A Q&A with Christian Cooper 

Black Birders Week is fast approaching, and the Academy of Natural Sciences is gearing up to celebrate in style. On June 1, the Academy will host Black Excellence in Birding: An Evening with Christian Cooper, the 3rd annual black-tie gala and fledgling sneaker ball in support of Black Birders Week. The event includes discussions with local birdwatching group members, an opportunity to examine specimens from the Ornithology Collection and an immersive journey through the rainforest in the Under the Canopy exhibit.  

The evening will feature special guest Christian Cooper, renowned New York Times best-selling author and National Geographic host, who will share his experiences as a birdwatcher and discuss how the Central Park birdwatching incident of 2020 reshaped the environment for Black birders nationwide.  

For anyone hoping to begin or expand their exploration of the avian world, Cooper shared some of his first-hand knowledge, tips and experience as a birder with the Academy. 

What are the must-have tools for someone interested in urban birding? 

The only must-have tool is awareness! Pay attention to the sights and sounds of the birds around you: What do they look like? What are they doing? Where are you seeing them? A field guide to the birds in your area (in either printed or app form) is super helpful, as are a pair of binoculars — and that’s where things can get pricey. A good entry-level pair of binoculars can be had for $150, but there are other options when that’s too expensive. Many libraries and other organizations have loaner pairs of binoculars you can borrow. And when some birders upgrade their binoculars, they end up with an old pair they’re looking to give away. (I’ve never bought a pair of binoculars in my life. Every pair I’ve ever owned have been either hand-me-downs or gifts.) 

How do you find birding spots in the city? 

Birds are everywhere in the city — from my rooftop in downtown Manhattan, I regularly see American Kestrels (our smallest falcon) having aerial dogfights with Red-tailed Hawks. But to maximize your chances for success, look for places that have even a little bit of greenery — public parks, plantings in front of buildings, etc.  

In New York City, NYC Audubon offers a free “Birding by Subway” map to get you to the best birding spots around town, and other cities may offer similar resources; check with your local organizations, like In Color Birding, for more info. And if you’re a digital native, you can consult Ebird, a free service from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where you can look up almost in real time who’s seeing what birds and where. 

Cemeteries can be surprisingly good for birding in cities. They have well-tended plantings that aren’t disturbed by too much activity, so birds often congregate there. Also — don’t be shocked! — sewage/wastewater reclamation ponds; they can offer rich, bug-filled resources to birds who aren’t as squeamish as we people. 

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius © Greg Schneider/VIREO

What are the most memorable birds you’ve encountered in the Philadelphia area? 

I had the pleasure of birding with Jason Hall of In Color Birding at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, where I had a Bald Eagle soaring overhead (which is apparently a somewhat regular occurrence there) and a King Rail — a hard-to-find bird that I’d never seen before. (We birders call that a “life bird” or “lifer,” and we LOVE getting them!) 

King Rail, Rallus elegans © Brian E. Small/VIREO

Are there any messages that you want to share specifically with Black birders? 

Dear Black birders: The birds belong to no one and are for EVERYONE to enjoy — us as much as anyone else! Don’t let anyone ever tell you or make you feel that you don’t belong out there. Of course, be aware of your surroundings and be prepared for certain risks or resistance to our presence, just for being Black… but that’s always true for us Black folk in this country, wherever we are and whatever we do.  

So, let the outdoors and the world of birds embrace you, and you’ll find yourself giving it a gigantic hug back. 

To hear more from Christian Cooper, join the Academy at Black Excellence in Birding on June 1, 6­­–10 p.m. Find the full schedule of events, and register for your spot today

Visual Resources for Ornithology (VIREO), the worldwide bird photograph collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences, is a great resource to help you identify bird sightings. More than 700 photographers from around the world have contributed to VIREO, with over 100,000 unique images accessible online for educational, scientific and commercial use for students, birders and researchers alike.

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