Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman

Ornithological pilgrimage
I’m what you might call a casual birder. I don’t get out as much as I’d like to, and I’m certainly not in Kenn Kaufman’s league. When I do go birding, I always carry his Kaufman Focus Guide to the Birds of North America in my back pocket. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to read his 1997 book Kingbird Highway, but I can finally scratch this birding memoir off my life list.

When Kaufman was 16 years old, he dropped out of high school to pursue his love of ornithology. With his parents’ permission, he left his home in Wichita, Kansas to travel around the country viewing birds in the wild. In this memoir, Kaufman details his 1973 attempt at a Big Year—that is, to be the birder who spots the most species in North America in a given calendar year. At this period in history, birding was gaining popularity and just starting to grow into a national pastime. In this book, Kaufman is to birding what Forrest Gump is to jogging. Through his adventures, we see the youth of the American Birding Association and the nascent beginnings of the extensive birding communications network that exists today.

Too many nature writers err too far on the side of either poetry or science. Thankfully, Kaufman commits neither of these sins; his writing on birds maintains a delicate balance between the two. The book really isn’t so much nature writing, however, as it is travel writing. In his Big Year quest, Kaufman estimates he hitchhiked about 69,000 miles around North America while living on less than a dollar a day. The chronicle of his travels is like a rose-colored version of John Krakauer’s Into the Wild where everything goes right. Birds or no birds, anyone who’s ever felt the tug of wanderlust can’t help but envy Kaufman his adventure. The best passages of the book are those in which he contemplates life on the road. He doesn’t sugar-coat the dangers or the downers, but he more than adequately and eloquently relates the exhilarating liberation of voluntary homelessness. Unlike so many of us caught up in the hamster wheel of life, he followed his dream and lived to tell about it.

As for the birding stories, they engage the reader with mixed success. A few of his quests really impart the excitement of hunting for elusive quarry, like his journey down to Mexico to spot the Eared Trogon, or the general awesome grandeur of his trip to Alaska. After a while, however, the bird trips start to get a little monotonous. Kaufman drops a lot of names of fellow birders in his stories, yet he doesn’t do much to distinguish one from another, so often the less solitary portions of his narrative read like pages of acknowledgements. The only readers likely to recognize these names are those who diligently peruse the field notes in each issue of North American Birds. Towards the end of the book, Kaufman begins to grow tired of his journey and becomes disillusioned with the practice of obsessive listing. The reader comes to share these mixed feelings, yet it seems much of the book is tailored toward that narrow audience of obsessive listers.

The more you are involved in the birding “scene”—the ABA, the Audubon Society, Christmas bird counts, rare bird alerts, listing, etc.—the more you will enjoy the book. If, like me, you’re just a casual nature lover who enjoys birding on your own, this book might be a bit much for you.
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