Christian Cooper has been bird-watching in Central Park for decades, but a spring migratory excursion took a dramatic turn on May 25, 2020, when a woman refused his request to leash her wandering dog, per park regulations. He was hoping to spy a ground-dwelling bird called a mourning warbler and knew that her unleashed pet would make his quest impossible. After she refused and Cooper began filming with his phone, Amy Cooper—a white woman of no relation—announced that she was about to call the police, adding, “I’m going to tell them that there’s an African American man threatening my life.” Her blatant use of “weaponized racism” went viral. As Cooper aptly sums up the incident in Better Living Through Birding, “Fourteen words, captured amid sixty-nine seconds of video, that would alter the trajectory of two lives.” This encounter happened on the same day George Floyd was murdered.
A year later, Cooper was invited to attend a birding festival in Alabama. As he walked across Selma’s infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, he reflected on the day that bridge became a bloodbath in 1965 and on the travails his ancestors must have endured. “In that context, my incident in Central Park is just an asterisk,” he writes. “More than a year later, it remains exceedingly strange for me—the notoriety, that I’d even be mentioned in the annals of the nation’s racial strife.”
Throughout his wide-ranging memoir, Cooper is a thoughtful, enthusiastic narrator. Growing up as a Black kid on Long Island, New York, in the 1970s, “I was rarer than an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in the very white world of birding,” he writes. “As I simultaneously struggled with being queer, birds took me away from my woes suffocating in the closet.” Cooper gradually came out to family and friends, beginning while studying at Harvard in the 1980s. He went on to become one of Marvel’s first openly gay writers and editors—aside from birds, his other passions include superhero comics and sci-fi and fantasy—and introduced the first gay male Star Trek character in the Starfleet Academy series. In entertaining prose, Cooper reminisces about his life, writing especially poignantly about his often-difficult relationship with his father.
Tying these multifaceted strands together is no easy feat, but Cooper does it well. He peppers the text with helpful tips for beginning birders while recounting vivid excursions through Nepal, the Galapagos, Australia and, of course, his beloved Central Park. Generous soul that he is, Cooper writes that outrage shouldn’t be focused on Amy Cooper. Instead, he concludes, “Focusing on her is a distraction and lets too many people off the hook from the hard, ongoing examination of themselves and their own racial biases. . . . If you’re looking for Amy Cooper to yell at, look in the mirror.”