Kaufman, Kenn, Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand. Boston, Houghton Mifflin: 1997
This has long been one of my favorite books. I think I bought it when it was originally released in 1997. My hardback copy was lost in a move in 2010 and I replaced it with the paperback. Someday I may find a used hardback somewhere and pick it up again. I have an aversion to the paperback’s subtitle: “The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder.” While not inaccurate, it is not faithful to Kaufman as he portrays himself in the book and it is mostly a marketing ploy to jump on the “everything extreme” bandwagon.
This autobiographical tale follows Kaufman from his elementary school days in South Bend, Indiana, through his adolescence in Wichita, Kansas, and beyond. It is the story of his interest in birds and how it drove him to attempt a “big year”—a competitive aspect of birding to see as many different species as possible within a defined geographic area in one calendar year. The big year of choice for Kaufman was North America, 1973.
This book is enjoyable on two levels. First, and most broadly, it is a coming of age story and travelogue that happens to be wrapped in birds. There are plenty of personal elements and personalities in the book, including romance as Kaufman meets a girl who would later become his wife. The writing is descriptive without being tiresome and the locations range from places as exotic as the Florida Keys to those as pedestrian as the Brownsville, Texas dump. The emotional range of the story is wide, from almost transcendent experiences of natural beauty to frustration and disappointment.
On the more specialized level, I enjoy Kingbird Highway because in it Kaufman writes and thinks deeply about things that interest me: birds and the hobby of observing them. I came into birding primarily because of the “listing” aspect. In the spring of 1990, I took a college course entitled “Ecology of the American West” and was forced to keep a list of all the birds I saw throughout the semester. This quantifiable aspect—a way to keep score—hooked me.
This scorekeeping obviously motivated the young Kenn Kaufman as well, but a funny thing happened on the way to attempting to break the record. Kaufman discovered he cared more about the birds than about his list. This has parallels to my own experience. I still maintain my list and enjoying seeing new birds, but I also enjoy looking out my window and seeing familiar feathers perched at my feeder.
Kaufman’s epic trek is part escapist fantasy for me. Will I ever travel to Gambell Island in the Bering Strait? Maybe. Will I ever hitchhike to Alaska from the lower 48? Certainly not. That is part of the adventure I don’t identify with, but which amazes me every time I read it. For his criss-crossing of the continent, Kaufmann hitchhiked almost everywhere he went, with the exception of a few flights in Alaska, a few boat trips, and a few rides with friends. He had no employment and no trust fund to live off, his Dad having been laid off and unable to provide financial support. His spartan lifestyle over that year is impressive in its dedication.
Kingbird Highway is one of the few books I have reread multiple times because it has so many great scenes I enjoy revisiting. In it I find a bit of a kindred spirit in that Kaufman enjoys birds and the trips that lead to them. I enjoy his humble approach to telling his tale and his self-awareness that the whole enterprise was on some levels pointless. I’ve read other accounts of diehard birders and this one remains my favorite.