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Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand

4.17 of 5 stars 4.17  ·  rating details  ·  794 ratings  ·  99 reviews
At sixteen, Kenn Kaufman dropped out of the high school where he was student council president and hit the road, hitching back and forth across America, from Alaska to Florida, Maine to Mexico. Maybe not all that unusual a thing to do in the seventies, but what Kenn was searching for was a little different: not sex, drugs, God, or even self, but birds. A report of a rare b ...more
Hardcover, 318 pages
Published December 31st 1997 by Houghton Mifflin (first published 1997)
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Iowa City Public Library
To prepare for my upcoming trip to Ecuador I visited a doctor to update my inoculations. I explained that I was going to South America to look for birds, he mentioned he "thought that pastime had died out." I asked him where he’d been the last twenty years. That’s when he pulled out the syringe and asked me to roll up my sleeve…in hindsight, I could have been more polite.

What I should have said was, "The public library has many fine books regarding the deadly serious and ever-growing lifestyle
Extreme Birding! XTREME!
This is a book about hoe Kenn Kaufman spent 1973 hitchhiking North America to see the most species of birds he could see in one year. He was nineteen.
Okay, so probably not the best writing in the world, but I did not fall asleep (I am looking at you, For Whom the Bell Tolls). He had a lot of magical adventures that year all driven by this Big Year List. It makes me want to have a quest so that I can have some adventures. By the end of the year he gets tired of Listing bu
Confession: I'm a birder and birdwatcher myself. I usually find watching birds much more interesting than reading stories about other people's birdwatching adventures. But Kenn Kaufman changed that for me.

Kaufman dropped out of high school at 16 to hitchhike around the country in pursuit of birds. In 1973 he decided to do a "Big Year," seeing as many North American species as he could. He did so on less than $1,000 ... and yet was one of the year's top two listers, however you do the math.

The original subtitle, "The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand" is a better fit. This is the story of Kenn Kaufman's 1973 Big Year, his attempt to set a world record for the highest number of different species of birds seen in North America. Then as it is now, the stereotypical "birdwatcher" was a little old hobbyist, but KK was a 19 year old high school dropout, more passionate for discovering birds and wild places than he was for finishing his education, and his cross-c ...more
David R.
I had the same problem with this book that I have had with others by "power birders". Kaufman and his friends just strike me as too arrogant and self-absorbed. And here, the ugly side of birding--the competition to merely check off birds and move on-- takes on a life of its own. I had incredible difficulty believing that an 18 year old with 20 dollar binoculars could hitchhike across the country, flawlessly identifying hundreds of species on first contact and in so doing finding over a dozen rar ...more
Birder Kenn Kaufman chronicles the beginning of his love affair with birds, taking us from a childhood memorizing local species in Kansas to teenage adventures hitchhiking across the country, a high-school dropout in search of new species to add to his list.

It's a pretty gentle look at obsession, using a genial, easygoing voice to capture utter fixation. From the start, Kaufman makes it clear that he's uninterested in living by anyone else's standards, and his focus finds him sleeping on a tarp
Jim Davis
As that spring is arriving in Alaska, I decided that this would be a good time to read Ken Kaufman's book detailing his Big Year of 1973, as he hitchhiked back and fourth across the country. His vivid descriptions of his birding encounters are remarkable. "The moon was climbing in the east, flooding the valley with light. Again I began to walk the edges of the meadows, slowly, watching on all sides, listening intently. But listening was pointless. A couple of hours later, when the owl appeared, ...more
Sep 15, 2014 Kathy rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Kathy by: Reading group selection
I'm a few years younger than Kenn Kaufman so nearly everything he wrote about (but the birds) was familiar to me--the music on the radio, the highways, the bus stations, kids (but not me) hitchhiking, the ease of being a young person in America at the time of Kaufman's big year. No cameras on street corners. No passport needed to travel in and out of Canada. No need for a body scan before boarding an airplane.

Kaufman knew very early in life what he wanted, which is a huge gift. He was fortunate
Kaufman's biography "Kingbird Highway" is a great companion read to Mark Obmaschik's "The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession." In January 1972 high school dropout and birding enthusiast, Kenn Kaufman, set out to chase the 626 record for identified bird species in a single year. Kaufman does find 666 birds that year, but his longer standing record is that he did his 'Big Year' on a budget less than $ 1,000. He hitchhiked back and forth across and up and down the continent, campin ...more
Marc Baldwin
I wasn't sure how I would like this book because I'm a casual birder and not even in the same galaxy as a birding legend like Kenn Kaufman. But based on some of the reviews that I had read it sounded like it was as much about life as it was about birds.

Kaufman had me hooked from the beginning. A 16-year-old drops out of school to hitch hike around the country and look at birds? With a premise like that, I figured there had to be some adventure worth reading about. It is true that most of the boo
Well, I'm a birdwatcher and I loved it, though I doubt if Kingbird Highway would have quite the same appeal for non-birders. Having said that, the book is so much more than its glorious descriptions of bird life. It's a travel memoir of a most unusual adventure: criss-crossing the U.S. by hitchhiking, encountering eccentric strangers, making friends, growing up. On the side of the highway onramp, we wait for a ride with young Kenn Kaufman, sharing his musings, his hopes and discouragement, his ...more
Trish Remley
This was such an interesting book to read, especially that it took place when all the heavy duty birding started to take place. Instead of Audoboning (shooting the bird as my husband would say), they start to just look, keep lists, and learn behaviors. First that he was obsessed with birds starting at age 6 is something in itself. That Kenn was allowed to quit school(only sixteen), take off with virtually no money, to find birds was really something. As a parent, I don't think I could have allow ...more
Erin Eve
If this book was only about what the cover suggests - following the events of Kenn Kaufman's big year - it would have been quite enjoyable. However, Kauffman picked up the threads of several birding themes that made it exemplary. The story opened with the carrot of Kauffman as a high school dropout, hitchhiking rides across country to go birding, working in apple orchards to earn $50 to sustain him for the next month of birding, and eating cat food and sleeping outside to save money. The passion ...more
This is a very special book for me. Kenn Kaufmann has become and is well known as one of the premier birdwatchers and authors on bird identification in this country.I started birdwatching at about the same time as the author, although I was probably about fifteen years older. The magic of this book is not only his marvelous adventure, but his sharing the fond memories of people and places that were included in this endeavor. Many of the people included in this odyssey are no longer with us, but ...more
Oh, my, this book gave me such a warm fuzzy feeling. The author, Kenn Kaufmann, dropped out of high school in the early 70's to devote himself to his primary passion in life: bird watching, or in the subcultural parlance, "birding". Most of the book chronicles his attempt to crack the record for the most possible bird sightings in one year, which involves his criss-crossing (and back and forth and back and forth and back again) the country by hitchhiking.

He gives the reader not only an appreciat
Ken Kaufman dropped out of high school at 16 and traveled the continent to seek his dream and love of birds. At 19 he spent the entire year, 1973, attempting to list as many birds as possible to set a record for a single year. His wanderings took him several times far and wide, back and forth, up and down the lower 48 states and Alaska. By mostly hitch hiking he calculates he covered 96,000 miles. Often spending only a dollar a day on food and sleeping outdoors wherever he could find a place to ...more
About the time Kenn Kaufman was starting out on his Big Year, I was also discovering the joys of birding thanks mostly to my bedroom picture window which gave me a wonderful view of the birds in the large old trees in our yard. As a birder I probably relate to this tale more than non-birders, but the story should give nonbirders good insight into what motivates birders. His descriptions of the beginnings of the ABA, early birding hotlines, and the development of field guides was informative. It ...more
Fun book. Fun. the subtitle says it all, "The story of a natural obsession that got a little out of hand." The book details Kaufman’s peregrinations around the continent in search of birds—as many species as he can possibly find in one year—when he was only a teenage high school dropout. He had so little money, many days all he had to eat was dry cat food. The author comes of age and goes one to become one of this country’s leading bird experts. Great adventure story as he writes:

“Sometimes in t
I thought this was a very interesting view from an extreme group of individuals who would hop in a car, or put up a thumb to drive 7 or 10 hours to see a bird. I do appreciate birding, but to a lesser degree.

I found the writing/reading to be enjoyable, almost amusing at times because of the extreme lengths which would be taken to be in the right spot at the right time. Also, didn't realize the network of individuals which would have been available for someone who was that serious about birding.
I think this book would only appeal to a birder, which I am. Even so, the book started slowly for me as it seemed kind of flat and rather unbelieavable that a 16 year old kid from a seemingly good middle-class family would be allowed to drop out of high school to hitch hike all over the country searching for birds (it was the early 1970's). As the story progressed, it started to seem more real or perhaps was better written when I realized that Kenn was really devoted to finding the next bird to ...more
I liked this book. It is non-fiction, the memoir of Kenn Kaufman. It chronicles his early years birding and in specific 1973 the year he went for "a Big Year', He tours the USA by foot hitchhiking and criss crossing the USA in search of birds. With little to no money in his pocket and sleeping wherever he could he lists over 650 birds. Although he does not win for that year he has an experience like no other and it seems it will serve him well. A discussion with another friend who also read thi ...more
I enjoyed this book from cover to cover AND from bird to bird. The writing was great and the adventure was fascinating. I especially enjoyed the perspective of a young carefree birder with little backing him but youth and desire heading out on the road to go birding and to break a record. It was nice to see that he also learned something about himself and the birds of America. 1973 was a long time ago and hitchhiking across the nation was all the rage at the time. It's startling to see how much ...more
Part travel memoir, part birdwatching book, Kaufman's book is a classic tale of a young man out to see as many birds as possible in America during one year. An interesting book that also outlines the birdwatching culture of the early 1970s.
Luke Hanes
Is now easily one of my favorite books. It helps that I just finished my first year as a birder at the same time that I finished the book, but even if I wasn't interested in birds I think I would've been captured by the author's journey, I found myself longing to hit the road. And I also found myself making sacrifices to increase the chances of experiencing a little more out of life. It's because if this book that I often arrived to parks, mountains and refuges at 5am to experience wildlife and ...more
Very sweet book about a hitchhiking teen in the 1970s finding himself and a ton of birds. This would probably have been even more enjoyable if I knew anything about birds, but it was a good read nonetheless.
Amazing true story of Kenn Kaufman who dropped out of high school at age 16 and then proceeded to follow his passion of birding. He decided to do a "big year" in 1973 at age 19 and try and see as many different birds as possible. He hitchhiked all across the country and did it for under $1000. And I mean all over! From Denali to Nome- and this was before the AlCan highway was paved! All the way down to the Baja peninsula, up and down both coasts and everything in between! I am awed at how he fou ...more
Honest account of a 17 year old bird watcher who spent a year hitchhiking more than 69,000 miles in an attempt to see more than 665 different North American species. The author, who wrote the book 25 years after the fact, began with stars in his eyes and ended up ground down and disillusioned. His love of birds turned into a mindless pursuit of a tick mark on a list. Ultimately this book is about the journey, not the destination. It's age old to expect a certain outcome only to have the path cha ...more
Ricky Rico
Being a birder, I was naturally inclined to read this book. I'm not a fan of the Kaufman field guides for birds, but his others and life's work are amazing. This book was incredible. Not just the whole birding thing, but the freedom of such a young individual to travel the Americas by thumbing and bumming. I loved almost every minute of this book and it gave me a great insight into the world of competitive birding and the history of my favorite pastime. What about the girl at the garbage dump an ...more
Jul 05, 2014 Melanie marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Kaufman consulted on a film I just watched, "The Birder's Guide to Everything", so adding to my to-read list.
Carey Jensen
I've read maybe a dozen non-fiction stories about birding, and this is by far my favorite.
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Just Birding: Birds 1 2 Jul 24, 2014 09:05PM  
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“ Dreams and coffee and sunrises make up the rhythms of the road.
Music is a part of it, too: the popular music on the jukeboxes and radio stations. You hear it constantly, in diners and on car radios. The music has a rhythm that fits the steady drumming of tires over pavement. It seeps into your bloodstream. After a while it ceases to make any difference whether or not you like the stuff. When you’re traveling alone, a nameless rider with a succession of strangers, it can give you a comforting sense of the familiar to hear the same music over and over.
At any given time, a few current hits will be overplayed to exhaustion by the rock & roll stations. In hitching across the continent, you might hear the same song fifty or sixty times. Certain songs become connected in your mind with certain trips.”
“But in the early 1970s, we were not birdwatching. We were birding, and that made all the difference. We were out to seek, to discover, to chase, to learn, to find as many different kinds of birds as possible — and, in friendly competition, to try to find more of them than the next birder. We became a community of birders, with the complications that human societies always have; and although it was the birds that had brought us together, our story became a human story after all.” 2 likes
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