Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Reading Kingbird Highway

I just finished Kenn Kaufman's birding classic, Kingbird Highway, and it struck such a chord in me that I thought I'd blog about it. Most birders have probably already read it, so I'll try not to spend too much time blabbing about the "plot" such as it is, because there's so much more to the book.

On the surface, Kingbird Highway is a fascinating look into one young (18)man's "Big Year," trying to see as many bird species as he can over the course of a year. He's competing against other birders for the record (626 species), and his competitiveness reaches a level of obsession that drives him to hitchhike all over the continental US, Alaska, and Baja California (Baja was included in the American Ornithologists' Union's coverage area back then). He sleeps on roadsides, eats cold soup straight out of the can for breakfast, endures blazing heat and freezing cold, sometimes goes hungry for days, and works picking apples to scrape enough money together to take a few pelagic boat trips and two plane rides in Alaska. He lives on about a dollar a day, and his Big Year cost him a total of less than $1,000, which is pretty incredible even by 1973 standards.

The book is also a great picture of the country in the early 1970s, with all the "longhairs" and "hippies," the popularity of hitchhiking as a real mode of travel, the undeveloped areas on the coasts and other birding habitats, and the truly rugged nature of living on the road. Further, it's a study in pre-Internets birding: small telephone networks of birders who'd call one another when a rare bird was seen, meaning that by the time news of a rare bird got out, the bird might already have moved on by the time you heard about it, much less got there to see it. He meets most of the big-time birders of the day in person on his travels, depending on "friend of a friend" introductions to help him find his way in strange territory.

As a beginning birder, I appreciated learning about his field craft: finding birds on territory, differentiating habitats, sticking with a spot until you find a bird, and really studying each bird to get more than just the typical fieldmarks you find in a guide. I'd really like to get one of the Kaufman guides; I bet there would be tons of information in them.

The idea of doing nothing but birding, living for the next bird, full-time, is enchanting to me. I would love to live that way, but I have a family; it just wouldn't be possible, or even desirable--they need me, and I need them. Still, when something mundane like work or school trumps birding on my schedule, it's a sweet fantasy to think of leaving those things behind and just going birding any time I want.

His writing is at once straight-forward and lyrical; he appreciated not only the birds but everything around him as he traveled the country. His eagerness to learn more about each bird instead of just checking it off a list and moving on finally turns his obsessive quest into a chore by late September of his year, but he sticks with his commitment. He probably wouldn't have gone on to write his field guides had he not learned the value of truly studying each bird and enjoying it for its own sake. That's an important lesson for me, as I work to not only see (and count) new birds but to learn more about bird behavior and bird life; to see birding only as "listing" is to shortchange both the birds and yourself.

He doesn't end up setting the record; another guy who has the money to travel as fast as he needs to beats his list--but only by three species. Still, by the time you learn this fact at the very end, you really don't care anymore than he does. His Big Year changed him forever, just as beginning to bird has changed me--in ways I never anticipated. I have new birds, new friends, and a new life in the blog universe.

Now if I could only get the similarly titled Gordon Lightfoot song "Carefree Highway" out of my head, I'd really appreciate it.

25 comments:

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Lightfoot rules. Until I get "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" or "Sundown" stuck in my head. I'll look for that book one of these days.

FranIAm said...

It sounds like such an interesting book for many reasons.

And your review is sublime. What a lovely writing style you have!

LauraHinNJ said...

I think this may be the one bird book I haven't read. Something about it kept me from being interested - maybe the fanaticism I expected from it - but you make it sound good, Delia.

Susan said...

Haven't read it yet, but I will. Now I also need to get "Carefree Highway" out of my head - thanks a lot!

dguzman said...

Susan and Monkey--There must be something about Lightfoot that just infects your brain like a virus! Give it a week or ten days; you'll be fine.

Thanks, Fran--it's a good book.

Laura, you can see his fanaticism, but you can also see his distance from it, his recognition that it was all kinda stupid and crazy.

Earl Cootie said...

Oh, dear. Always behind the curve, I haven't even heard of it. But once I make up with the library, I'll be checking it out.

Beth in NYC said...

Delia, great review. I'm a new birder, too (started last year), and I have added this book to my "to read list."

dguzman said...

Earl and Beth, definitely a good read. Welcome to my little bloggy!

Susan Gets Native said...

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the words turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay
If they'd fifteen more miles behind her.

Just my two cents worth re: The Divine Lightfoot.

I don't read many bird books. I stick with field guides. But Kenn ROCKS! I met his wife a few years ago...she's lovely.

Isn't she lovely?
Isn't she wonderful?
Isn't she precious?
Less than one minute old....
Sorryl Lyric-itis.

dguzman said...

Gee, Susan, thanks for the classic rock moments!

Mary C said...

Delia - your review has me curious and wanting to read the book. I think I will find a copy of it, either in my local library or one of the bookstores, and take it with me next week when I fly to New Mexico for the Festival of the Cranes. Thanks for the book review.

dguzman said...

I hope you like the book. I'll be interested to hear other people's opinions about it. It's really the first book about birding I've ever read (besides field guides and guides to planting for birds, etc.--more like manuals than novels).

Larry said...

Nice description of the book!It was my favorite biding bokk and very inspirational.-You feel as though your along with him for the adventure.-I've read some interesting articles by Ken in Birdwatcher's Digest magazine.

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