Once, during his Big Year, he teams up with Texan aces for a Big Day. "Pulling up to the Texas City Dike," he says, "we leaped out of the car like gunslingers, binoculars blazing." Mostly he thumbs alone.
An epiphany: he meets a physician who studies each bird species in diagnostic depth. Finally, Kaufman realizes his own bird knowledge, focused on notching up his list, is shallow. He reaches 650 species, the theoretical maximum. By now he barely cares.
On Alaska's St. Lawrence Island, he looks across the Bering Sea to distant Siberian mountains. He finally truly sees the alcid family birds flying by "with tightly bunched flocks, long single files, disciplined chevrons, wavering streams, isolated pairs, the swift fliers passing the slow and being passed by the even swifter, weaving a dizzying web of patterns against the calm sea and the sky."
Kaufman does not even report who won the Big Year battle. Readers can find the ambiguous answer in the appendix. After hitching 69,000 miles, he has discovered his list really does not matter.
Awakening one dawn, frozen in a snow covered car, he realizes, "with chilling clarity, that birding is a ridiculous activity." But birding has led him down many roads. As an Oklahoma farmer tells him, "I guess your bird watching is better than smoking LSD, or whatever it is that the other hippies are doing."
Along the way, Kaufman had found his sustaining life's work: today, a distinguished ornithologist, he is recognized as the author of Lives of North American Birds.
Richard Wolkomir writes from his home in Vermont.