Published by Houghton Mifflin, copyright 1997, 320 pages.
Did you ever dream of dropping out of high school, travel the continent, meet interesting people, and bird till you dropped, but never quite had the nerve. That’s exactly what Kenn Kaufman did, a birder since age 6, and coming of age in the early 1970’s. “Kingbird Highway” is his first person account of a year of extreme birding, breaking the one year record for the most birds seen in North America, but also a story of an astute teenager’s self examination and road-wise education acquired in a spartan manner that few of us would attempt or survive.
Kenn Kaufman not only survived, but thrived and is now one of our leading ornithologists, conservationists, and authors. His dropping out of high school was not due to disillusionment; he was not running away but instead beginning a personal pilgrimage. At the time he was student council president in Wichita, Kansas and his remarkably tolerant parents supported his quest, as long as he agreed not to hitchhike. That promise only lasted until the first Greyhound bus trip.
Armed with a notebook, mediocre binoculars, a small knapsack, and sustained by a meagre diet that sometimes consisted of cat food (it’s cheap), he crisscrossed the continent on a shoestring budget primarily by thumbing. He eventually tired of explaining his birding goals to incredulous drivers and made up more mundane and believable excuses for being on the road.
He describes hours spent on Interstate on-ramps watching thousands of cars pass by his scruffy self until one finally stops. The best long distance rides were with truckers who often stopped after midnight looking for conversation on their long hauls. His finances were periodically replenished by odd jobs such as apple picking, and in dire circumstances he knew his centrally located Wichita home and a square meal were never more than three hungry hitching days away.
Kaufman describes happily meeting the subculture of like-minded obsessed birders along the way including his hero, Roger Tory Peterson and the prior record holder and similar aged Ted Parker, to whom the book is dedicated. He often birded alone, but occasionally hooked up with local bird clubs on weekend birding excursions to prime sites. Initial skepticism about this young, long-haired, hippie birder quickly changed to admiration as his advanced skills became evident.
Birders and non-birders alike will enjoy the many anecdotes shared in this book. Like his honorary membership as an IDIOT (Incredible Distances In Ornithological Travel) bestowed by the Lancaster, PA Bird Club, or the young woman in the hot car that gave him a ride to a foul-smelling dump in south Texas, not really believing he was actually looking for a specific gull.
Or the story of the Christmas Bird Count in Freeport, TX where he was assigned to a jetty to search for off-shore pelagics but was swept into the gulf, scope and all, by the raging surf. He barely survived, but did manage to see some great seabirds enhancing the local count. There’s also the saga of hitchhiking the entire 1500 miles of the gravel Alaska-Canada Highway, and the incredible scene of a flock of Alcids in flight at sunset over the Bering Sea with the snow-capped Siberian mountains in the distance.
Amazingly Kaufman broke the old record of 626 birds by July and was able to spend the second half of the year chasing rarities and mopping up some common birds missed on his earlier trips. The tone of the narration and I think the mindset of the author changed as the year progressed. He seemed to tire, both physically and emotionally, and began to question the whole listing rat race. In this period he seemed to revive his interest in bird observation and his relationship with fellow birders, placing listing in a secondary role.
By the end of the book, the year, and 80,000 miles later his count was a phenomenal 671 birds, but there was no climactic celebration. Almost as an afterthought the reader learns that another birder, older and better financed, also had a big year in 1973 and surpassed Kaufman’s count by several birds. Ken was non-plussed.
The author fist drafted his book in 1974 but did not finally publish “Kingbird Highway” until 1997, thus allowing a retrospective assessment of the incredible year. The book contains descriptions of a plethora of birding hotspots, some of which I have visited but not with the birding eyes or ears of the esteemed author. These include the Dry Tortugas in Florida, the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Santa Ana NWR, and Bentsen State Park in Texas, Cape May and Forsythe NWR in New Jersey, and Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and the Chiricahua NM in Arizona.
This is a story that will never be repeated, even though the record has been broken many times since. “Kingbird Highway” took place in the pre-internet and pre-eBird era when there were no instantaneous rare bird alerts. Back then sightings were conveyed by telephone, newspaper, or snail mail, and often stale by the time the birder could respond. In those days hitchhiking was safer and cheap travel more available. Kaufman spent less than $1000 for the entire year with half of that used for two plane trips in Alaska. I’ll wager you’ll have a hard time finding any birder, young or old, that would endure the challenges of the year that Kaufman so wonderfully describes in this book.
I’ll end with two Kaufman quotes. “The most significant thing we find may not be the thing we are seeking. That is what redeems the crazy ambivalence of birding… It gets us out there in the real world, paying attention, hopeful, and awake.” “Any bird-listing attempt is limited by time–a Big Day, Big Year, even a Life List are reminders of mortality. The day ends, the year will end, everything will end. Time is short…make the most of it.”