James Currie is fast becoming the most recognizable face in birding, thanks to his popular TV show, “Nikon’s Birding Adventures,” on NBC Sports Network, which is now in its fourth season. He also hosts the action-birding show “Aerial Assassins” on National Geographic, which aired in the United States and worldwide this year. He has also led wildlife and birding tours for 15 years and his passion for birding, adventure and remote cultures has taken him to nearly every corner of the globe. We recently exchanged a few emails with Currie to learn more about his show, and his singular approach to birding:
How did you come to birding, needless to say, birding on television?
I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and had a strong interest in wildlife from a very early age. My parents owned the restaurant at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain and I used to regularly hike the mountain around the age of 9 or 10. One day I was watching a group of Rock Hyrazes lazily sunning themselves on a large granite boulder when right before my eyes a massive Black Eagle (more recently named Verraux's Eagle) swooped in and plucked one of the unsuspecting rodents from the rock. I remember being totally awestruck by the bird's power and I was hooked on birding for life. The idea for the TV show happened at about 2 in the morning when I woke my wife, Rebecca, and told her I wanted to start a TV show. I wanted to share my passion with the world, and relate to the camera as if it were a birding guest on one of my tours.
(interview continues after video from Birding Adventures TV)
I’ve heard you describe your take on birding as less about the details of identification and more about the adventure around it.
As humans we like to compartmentalize everything, we need to put everything in a box. And I feel that there is a very real element there that has the potential to ignore the adventure and lighter side of birding. For example, we might spend hours focused on trying to ID one bird, missing out on some other amazing stuff that is going on around us. So I like to use local guides in new birding destinations and try to focus on the adventure of birding, the new smells, new bird calls, new wildlife and amazing cultures.
Every time you visit a new destination on your show, you seem to go to great lengths to show other aspects of the location – the landscape, the people, other recreational opportunities, etc. Is it part of your goal to show how the bird fits into the larger environment?
Absolutely. If we are to make birding appealing to a wider audience, we need to make it interesting and fun. Most non-birders have zero interest in watching an entire program wall-to-wall full of birds. But if its broken up with great culture, humor and other exciting activities we are more likely to get more people to take an interest in birding. But also, there is a more important goal for showing birds in the context of the wider environment and that is conservation. Bird conservation absolutely NEEDS the involvement of people. Gone are the days of setting aside habitat for rare birds by excluding people. True bird conservation depends on INCLUDING people. So if more local people can take ownership of their birds and habitat and realize that value by attracting outsiders to their area to watch wildlife, those local people are more inclined to protect what they've got. It all boils down to economics and I believe that by encouraging people to travle to these awesome birding destinations, we are contributing in some small way to the conservation of birds globally.
So, I know it’s unfair to ask someone like you about your favorite bird or best trip, but do have one or two birding adventures that stand out for you that you’d like to tell us about?
That's a tough one because so many adventures stand out for different reasons - most grueling, most challenging, best birds, most hair-raising. But one of the most inspiring trips happened right in your neck of the woods. Filming California Condors, interviewing Pete Bloom, who caught the last wild condor, and witnessing the splendor of Bitter Creek National Wildlife. It’s not often that one gets to report on a conservation success story. In terms of most hair-raising, I was charged by lions whilst looking for Wattled Cranes in Africa for one of my guests. I didn't have a rifle and it was pretty hardcore!
As the show has become more popular, do get the sense that birding is becoming better known? Are you being recognized more often? Are you becoming the Steve Irwin of birding?
Hah! That's funny. I was recognized at a Furthur (Grateful Dead) concert recently, if that counts for anything! No, but seriously, Steve Irwin was a global household name and we're nowhere near that level yet, even though many people compare me to him. My aim is to attract non-birders to birding through the show rather than pander exclusively to birders. That's the only way that birding will grow. Birding needs both information AND adventure, and I think that our recent production for National Geographic, "Aerial Assassins," achieved that goal to some extent. With a much lower budget we try to do this too with our weekly programming of Nikon's Birding Adventures and I think our increase in ratings demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction. In the wider context I think that we will see a shift towards nature again. We currently live in a nature-deficit society where people, especially kids, are spending more and more time indoors on electronics. But that's why we have to reach people where they are and encourage them to get outdoors. Several digital apps like the Audubon Guides apps from Green Mountain Digital are also achieving this. So I see more people getting outdoors again - ironically through digital media.