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

Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand
Kenn Kaufman
Houghton Mifflin

This book is only tangentially about birds. Kingbird Highway is really about monomania. It is 1973: psychedelically painted VW vans pump out Jefferson Airplane tunes. Drivers flash peace signs. Beside the highway stands a Jesus look-alike, thumb out.

Kenn Kaufman certainly had the au courant long hair and beard, and hobo couture. But he did have one peculiar appurtenance: around his neck hung high-powered binoculars, painted shiny gold. His ornithology fixation had already set in by his ninth birthday, when Kaufman's family moved from South Bend, Indiana, to Wichita, Kansas. En route he discovered hitchhikers, those traffickers in his future modus operandi. "Was there something wild, something from outside my comfortable world, in those faces?" he wondered. But mostly the boy in the backseat scanned fences, wires, the tops of elms. He had "a mission, a passion: I was watching for birds."

Other boys idolized halfbacks or shortstops. Little Kenn's hero was Roger Tory Peterson, the bird-book man. Kaufman was an honors student. But at age 16 he quit school to chase birds. Among the few rules his trusting parents imposed was "no hitchhiking." But birding via Greyhound palled. He soon joined the roadside thumbers.

On his birding peregrinations, Kaufman slept under bridges, ate cat food, picked apples for traveling money. Then true ornithomania hit--he discovered "listing": he became addicted to tallying birds, to adding to his species-I-have-seen list.

Kingbird Highway is about Kenn Kaufman's "Big Year." He aimed to show up at the right habitats at the right moments to bag birds he needed for a record one-year tally. Ornithologists figured 650 species lived in the United States and Canada, plus visitors. Nobody, it was assumed, could possibly see them all in one lifetime. Roger Tory Peterson, in 1953, totaled 572 species. In 1956, a lister hit 598. But by 1973 publications detailed which birds hung out at virtually all key North American sites. And a birder grapevine allowed no rarity to show its tail feathers without bird addicts converging within hours, brandishing scopes and Leicas. When Kaufman began, the record stood at 626. Can our contender beat that?

It will prove one doozy of a hitching hegira. But Kaufman has barely started when he meets, as he's seabird watching from a boat off New England, a Michigan college teacher, also doing a Big Year. Sir Lancelot versus Sir Mordred. Our man has more time, if you subtract how long it takes to hitch from Arizona to New Jersey to bag a spotted redshank. But his opponent has more money.

By July, an exhausted Kaufman beats the record, hitting 630 birds. But is Sir Mordred ahead? He hitches on, "beginning to feel the mileage." He gives us hitching hints (fewer cars after midnight, but drivers may want a rider to help them keep awake). He gives us ornithological insights ("The uninitiated are surprised to learn that dumps are very birdy places"). Mostly, he gives us a running tally (White-Collared Seedeater, Boreal Owl, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Azure-rumped Tanager, Rhinoceros Auklet, Horned Guan). His list passes 640.

Then, an epiphany: he meets a physician who studies each bird species in diagnostic depth. Kaufman realizes his own bird knowledge, focused on notching up his list, is shallow. He reaches a total of 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. . . ."

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 discovers his list 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.

Along the way, Kaufman also has found his sustaining life's work: today, as a distinguished ornithologist, he is recognized as the author of Lives of North American Birds.

Reviewer Richard Wolkomir writes from his home base in Vermont.

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