Recollection: You Call Yourself a Birder?

Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman

I’ve been staring at a book by Kenn Kaufman that has been laying on my desk for several months now.  Having read it in a couple of marathon sessions it was simply waiting for me to get around to posting a recollection of it.  There it sat, begging night after night for some time to meet the world.  Problem is, these recollection posts take a significant amount of time to a) to capture what I thought about it, b) review various pages to remind myself of compelling takeaways, c) do some research to personalize the takeaways and then d) get it all down in black in white.  Thanks to the first official day of the Wisconsin dog show, the procrastination has come to an end.  Today’s post is about a body of work on a famous birder.  Kenn published his book, Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life  of an Extreme Birder, back in 1997 (2006 for my paperback copy) covering his endeavor to complete a Big Year back in 1973.  Tops of my list of birding related reading is Neil Hayward’s Lost Among the Birds (link here).  That book is an incredible read focused on the emotional healing that birding can bring.  Kingbird is now solidly anchored in the number 2 position. Like Hayward’s, I found myself unable to put the book down.  I’d pick it up for a quick nitecap and next thing I know I’m looking at very small numbers on the clock.  If I remember correctly, Ron had the exact same opinion when I originally bought him this book – he liked it so much he ended up having a copy sent to me.  After I turned the last page I said to myself “I’m not a birder!”.  Kenn sets an entirely different standard, embarking on his Big Year when he was 16 years old.  His mode of transportation – standing on the side of the road with his thumb out.  69,000 miles later he had tallied up 666 birds – three short of Floyd Murdoch, but they didn’t count his + 5 from the Baja’s which would have put him over. The stunner in all of this… the amount of money that he spent in this mission.  $50K?,  $100K?, hell $200K doesn’t sound out of reason based on all the criss-crossing you have to do across North America to even have a chance of getting the needed level of checks.  In truth, Kenn spent a staggering $1K – that is travel and living expenses for the entire year – with nearly half of that in two flights in Alaska.  Getting by on less than a dollar a day.  That my friends is an individual that can stand in front of anyone past and present and claim they are a birder.  One that is willing to eat dry cat food for sustenance and endured several run ins with police who didn’t appreciate his mode of transportation and/or his road weary look and even fended off a knife wielding mugger trying to get his cat food.  A different time for sure.  These days, traveling by thumb to see birds has a good chance of you ending up being circled by Vultures.  I did find myself asking what kind of parents he had that was okay with him dropping out of high school and heading off on a solo adventure to every coastline and everywhere in between.  He did thank them at the end of the book stating how grateful he was for them having the faith to let him follow his dream.

Kenn is a tall oak in the birding field and a regular contributor in our primary birding magazines.  Birder’s World refers to Kenn as “the person who knows more about bird identification than almost anyone on the planet”.  He didn’t get there by burying his nose in books – instead, he put himself out there and gained his knowledge the old fashioned way – experiencing it.  Do you enjoy birding, maybe even thinking about a big year yourself ?- grab a copy of this book – guarantee you will have problems putting it down, eagerly turning page after page to learn how Kenn was able to get another check on the list.

If you can’t wait to get your own copy, hit the jump to see a few of my takeaways.


  • Early hero was Roger Tory Peterson
  • Kenn dropped out of high school at age 16
  • He had numerous run ins with the law on his quest, including being locked up for a couple of days for being an unaccompanied minor in California
  • His mode of transportation was hitchhiking paired with sleeping outdoors on 50 bucks/month and dry cat food
  • Occurred in a time prior to a wide organization of what you would call birders – National Audubon was more focused on conservation (nothing changed there)
  • American Birding Association started by Jim Tucker’s Birdwatching Digest he put out in 1968
  • Kenn’s big year initially started out in January 1972 in an effort to break the current 600 barrier, but found out a mere month into the project that Ted Parker (similarly aged) had already broke it by 26 – Kenn decided to make another stab at in 1973
  • Although he was reliant on hitchhiking, he was very aware that it was considered fun by some at the time to pick up long haired hippies and beat then up – learned to turn rides down
  • Open about the “chummers” that bait the birds on the boating birding trips
  • Kenn ended up being arrested numerous times (not for true crimes, rather hitchhiking and over eager police) and thankful for parents sending him bail money without question. On one occasion, made bail, got attacked by a knife wielding mugger (defended himself with his belt) and then managed to questioned again by police afterwards
  • Did have moments of brilliance noting that birding was a ridiculous activity, but carried on anyway – sounds like he was on a mission from god.
  • Noted the Mexican Crow at the Brownsville dump. Linda and I have been at that very same dump to get the very same bird. We missed out though.
  • Noted the later half of the 19th century where everyone was trying to introduce birds where they didn’t belong.  Although he has a particular fondness for the Sky Lark – difficult to introduce but didn’t push the native birds around and was pleasing to listen to – I will have to look that bird up and see what options there are to witness this bird.
  • House Sparrows were introduced as an ill-conceived idea to control cankerworms
  • In 1900, Frank Chapman introduced a true counting alternative to the traditional Christmas Count which consisted of guests dividing up and trying to see which team could kill the most things that moved
  • Frigate birds used to be called Man-O’-War birds
  • Birded Fort Jefferson, initially intended to guard the approach from the Gulf Coast – never put into service (thanks to development of rifled cannonballs rendering it useless).  Turned into a prison where Dr. Samuel Mudd was detained for 4 years after the Lincoln assassination. Dr. Samuel set Wilkes’ leg that night
  • Cave Swallows were just beginning to expand their range moving out of the caves to under bridges – he found his at the exact place I got my check – the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park.
  • Bird Scientists in NA standardized on the classification system from the American Ornithologists’ Union to set the birders check list.
  • He mentioned the Swallow-Tailed Kite he found in Florida. He characterized it as the most graceful birds of prey in NA. I have to agree and one of my favorited bird sightings to date
  • Mentioned High Island as a great place to bird – we tried to go there during our trip to Texas at the beginning of the year. That place isn’t really commercialized and we were not sure what to do – not to mention it seemed to sit in the middle of a neighborhood.
    We opted to pass but thinking we might need to try that again
  • Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge was still being developed at the time time noting the entrance was just a roof over a billboard. Today this is one of our favorite destinations whenever we head to the Texas Gulf Coast.
  • They spotted a Prairie Chicken at Galveston noting there was a colony not far away – we tried visiting the very same colony, but it ended up being extremely windy that day and we struck out getting any of the Chickens in the tin.
  • Found the Elf Owl at Bentsen-Rio. I immediately put this Owl on my list to track down the next time we are down there.
  • A memorable quote “Any bird-listing attempt limited by time (big day, big year, even a life list – was like a reminder of mortality, the day will end, the year will end, everything will end.  Time is short, make the most of it.”
  • Played a recording of the Buff-Collard Nightjar to coax a response without luck.
    I keep referencing these accounts as we constantly get people weighing in on this practice who don’t understand the pillars in the hobby have employed it
  • Noted at the time that Adak Island in the Aleutian chain was the Asian stray rarities destination of choice followed by Gambell, a village on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea west of Nome.
  • Good friend Ted Parker became the leading expert on the birds of the Neotropics and one of the leading field ornithologists of all time, dying flying into a mountainside of Ecuador while surveying bird habitats. Kenn dedicated this book to him
  • Thumbed 69,000 miles that year (many thousands in the preceding three years) had grown tired of hitchhiking at the end going from looking for a free ride to vowing to work for every inch and pay for every mile in the future
  • Noted that the current big year counts were unlikely ever to be surpassed – mainly because the trips to the former military outpost, Attu, had been suspended.
  • Mentioned that Mark Obmascik of the big year was a too cheap to pay a couple of bucks to get into a state park after paying thousands for flights and rental cars.
  • On a technicality, lost to Floyd Murdoch who tallied 669 – three more than Kenn, but his Baja birds were not officially counted – not to mention the bird species lumping that was going on at the time.
  • Did set a record for birds per buck – total living and traveling expenses for the year was less than a thousand dollars and nearly half went to plane flights in Alaska – primarily getting by on less than a dollar a day.
  • Grateful to his parents for having the faith to let him go to follow his dream

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