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

4.19  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,021 Ratings  ·  118 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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Apr 14, 2016 Cheryl rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was wrong!
I'd probably have liked it more if it were the first book on the subject I'd read. Or if I were a competitive birder myself. But after reading Big Twitch and The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession (and I think one other but I can't remember enough of it to search for it) I've had enough.

At least Kenn hitched and mooched, and actually watches the birds when he gets a chance - the others spend so much money, leave such a huge carbon footprint, and do
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
hard book to gauge because of the obsessive nature of the content. informative if you don't know anything about birds (i don't) but not very revelatory on anything else. less a memoir than a travel journal. kaufman is a decent writer, but there's so little emotion involved in the story it's hard to care about any of it. most chapters are interchangeable. "i went here and saw these birds then i went there and saw these birds then i ran into this person and they told me about the birds they saw th ...more
Aug 14, 2011 Audrey rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 08, 2011 Julie rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoirs, travel, birding
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.

Malin Friess
Nov 05, 2015 Malin Friess rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's hard to imagine..but in the 1970's with the support of his parents, Ken Kaufman at the age of 16 dropped out of highschool and hit the road. Sleeping in fields and underpasses, living off of crackers, coffee, and even cat food (it's cheap), and hitchhiking everywhere in the US and Mexico--Kenn was not searching for love or following the Grateful Dead--No Ken wanted to see every rare bird in the US.

In 1973 with just a sleeping bag and yellow painted binoculars Kenn began his own "Big Year"
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
Mar 08, 2015 Stacy rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, biography
This was an ok read, but I find I enjoy actually birding much more than reading about someone else birding. I also bird for completely different reasons than the author, so it was harder to relate to him. He was birding for the social aspect (hanging with other birders) and the competition of it (though that changed throughout the year). I bird for the solitude in nature and to view the wonder of the birds - their diversity, habits, behaviors, calls, etc. I also found it very odd that he didn't ...more
Feb 05, 2015 James rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature, non-fiction
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
Sep 05, 2015 Robin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is Kenn Kaufman's story about when he was 16 years old in the early 1970s and decided to hitchhike around the US to do a Big Year of birding. He describes his adventures on the road, the people he meets, the camaraderie of other birders, the details of how and where he comes across different birds, and the excitement of breaking a record after doing a 'big day' in Texas with some top birders. Along the way, he shares a lot of interesting birding knowledge and insights, including some some b ...more
Jim Davis
Feb 22, 2015 Jim Davis rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: travel
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 really liked it  ·  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
Feb 02, 2014 Marc Baldwin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 14, 2015 Sandy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, birds
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
Dec 27, 2012 Trish Remley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 11, 2013 Erin Eve rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Jan 21, 2016 Burlgurl rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: birds
this is an autobiography of a well known birder. he dropped out of high school to spend a year travelling across the u.s., finding birds. it is fun, funny, surprising and of course, quite delightful read, assuming you are interested in birds. it might also be enjoyable for those not so fanatical about birds, but that is hard for me to tell. it is also a quite intriguing look into the values and choices that are made during our teen years.
Nov 01, 2008 John rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 12, 2010 Lisa rated it liked it
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
Jan 27, 2009 Stephen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
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
Nov 15, 2013 Dave rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Aug 29, 2015 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As a birder, I found this book delightful. The descriptions of America's various natural places are wonderful and made me want to go out and explore. For those not into birding, some of the descriptions of the various birds may not hold interest. However, I found the writing to be good, beyond just my interest in the birds/birding.
Oct 31, 2013 Gail rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 16, 2014 Carol rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dave Franz
Every once in a while this book shined, but too infrequently. It is amazing to think a kid could just drop out of school and freely wander the US by hitchhiking, looking for birds. More introspection and tension would help the narrative.
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
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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.” 4 likes
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