Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



Nature and Environmental Book Review:
Kingbird Highway

Book Review by David Yarian, Ph.D.

Kingbird HighwayKingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder
Kenn Kaufman

As a young man, Kenn Kaufman was fascinated by birds, and by sixteen a full-fledged (!) birding fanatic. He read everything he could find on the subject, and spent all his free time looking at birds.

Getting to know other birders, he became aware of the phenomenon of listing – keeping track of species sighted, by day, by region, or during an entire year. This practice had gradually grown until, in the early 1970's, it was becoming a competitive event.

Bird enthusiasts gathered annually to do a "Christmas Count", blanketing a geographic area with watchers who, at the end of the day, would compile a list of all the species sighted on that day. A compilation of the nationwide results was published every year in the Audubon Field Notes.

Gradually this practice evolved into informal competitions among birders about "Big Days" – the list of most species sighted in a single day. Inevitably out of this developed the Big Year list – the number of species of North American birds sighted by an individual in the course of one year.

With about 650 species of birds in North America, there is a ceiling to the number of birds it is even possible to see. But North America is a big place, and birds migrate long distances seasonally, and in addition vary widely in terms of preferred habitat – from pelagic birds spending most of their time at sea, to landbirds who are very picky about their habitat and only show up in a few isolated places in the country.

Roger Tory Peterson, who began producing the first field guides for birdwatchers in the 1930s, turned in a Big Year list of 572 species in 1953. Soon other birders began reporting their lists, and by 1970 the record stood at 598 species sighted in a single year. Birding publications speculated about the possibility of breaking 600 in a single year.

"Well," thought 17-year-old Kenn Kaufman, "Why don't I do it?"

In short, he did, in 1973, the year he turned eighteen.

The long version of the story is this fascinating look into birding, and into the maturation of this young man with a vision. Kaufman's parents allowed him to drop out of school to pursue his dream.

Kingbird Highway tells of Kaufman's pursuit of the Big Year list record. Along the way he meets many other bird enthusiasts and has plenty of adventures.

Kaufman was on a budget: he essentially had no money. He worked at odd jobs until he accumulated a little money, then took off hitchhiking back and forth across the country. He needed to arrive at migratory hot spots at the precise time particular species were passing through the area.

In the course of his Big Year, Kaufman traveled over 80,000 miles (hitchhiking!) and spent less than $1000 on his quest. He befriended birders from coast to coast, and even got to meet the fabled Roger Tory Peterson. He covered the country, from the Florida Keys to the Aleutian Islands, from California to Maine.

He listed 666 species that year – more than surpassing the longed-for goal of 600 species – but was second to a friendly rival who listed 669 species. Bird people around the country were caught up in the friendly contest between two young men who loved birds.

In the end, for Kaufman, it was not about "winning." It was about being young and traveling with a mission, meeting interesting people and having adventures along the way. He met his future wife during his travels.

This delightful book is a coming-of-age story, a Road story with a twist – it's centered on loving birds, and being willing to pursue them literally to land's end. Kaufman is an engaging storyteller. He wrote this book almost forty years after the events it described took place, yet his narrator's voice is youthful and vibrant, and the world he describes seems very new and fresh.

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