Birder Kenn Kaufman chronicles the beginning of his love affair with birds, taking us from a childhood memorizing local species in Kansas to teenage aBirder 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 and subsisting on nothing as he thumbs his way across the country looking for the next black-capped gnatcatcher or horned guan.
"I could easily go birding for a month on fifty bucks. All my travel was by hitchhiking. I never slept in motels--literally never; I slept outside, regardless of the weather. For food, I tried to get by on a dollar a day. Going to grocery stores, I would buy cans of vegetable soup, cans of hominy, perishables marked down for quick sale. Later I discovered that dry cat food was palatable, barely; a box of Little Friskies, stuffed in my backpack, could keep me gong for days."
Soon, though, Kaufman realizes there's a community much like him. It's not long before the thrill of discovery extends to the joys of companionship as the young traveler meets friends, mentors and even his first wife. Before long, he's decided to take a shot at setting a new record for a "Big Year"--an attempt to see as many species as possible in one calendar year. This effort, which makes up the bulk of the book, sees him starving himself and spending lonely hours waiting on highway-on-ramps as he travels to see the next bird.
"Kingbird Highway" is easy and approachable, especially for a book that deals with a specialized subject. Even in naming more than 600 species, Kaufman is careful to remain open to birding novices, communicating just a bit of what makes each species special to encounter.
Beyond the biology, though, I most enjoyed his efforts to conjure the era's birding community. We see how newsletters and phone trees are changing the hobby. We also meet plenty of characters, from backyard birders to prodigies dreaming of tropical landscapes to survey. There are sleepless nights, Alaskan airways and dreamlike journeys south of the border.
Through it all, the author's steady voice keeps our focus on the next milestone he needs to hit for the record. By the end of the year, Kaufman has grown disenchanted with the checklist approach to birding, wanting to move toward a deeper connection with the species he loves. The contest ends up almost an afterthought...although that may be because of how it turns out.
I do wish Kaufman had turned a sharper eye on himself, trying to unravel exactly what motivated him to commit to such a harsh life on the road. Sure, there are some stabs at an explanation, but it feels detached instead of urgent. It's not surprising to read that the book was crafted decades after the experience; it does feel like a bit of the immediacy has been drained from it, although it may also benefit from the longer perspective.
If you're not interested in birds, this may not be the book for you, as Kaufman devotes a lot of space to their habits and calls as well as the thrill they incite in a certain crowd. Not being a birder myself, I enjoyed a glimpse into their world, and I didn't have much difficulty following Kaufman to the end of this first journey....more