Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Review: Kingbird Highway

Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman. Houghton Mifflin paperback edition 2006. 320 pages

For birding literature, I find the best reads are by Kenn Kaufman and Pete Dunne. They both tell true stories of birding and birders with wit, humour, even suspense, along with a passion and awareness of the natural world in which we all share.

For those who have no idea who Kenn Kaufman is, I won't go into detail. Here is his website

Kingbird Highway tells the life story of how, at the age of sixteen, Kenn Kaufman dropped out of school to hit the road in pursuit of birds. Mostly by hitchhiking, he went across North America from Kansas to southeast Arizona, over to California, across to Florida, up the east coast, down to the south of Texas, the midwest, into Alaska, all the way down to Mexico, and many more places. Why? To see as many birds as possible in one year, which us birders call a "big-year".

The decade in which Kenn Kaufman started this pursuit of birds was when a revolution was spreading across North America. It was in the early 1970s, when a nationwide community was born. The ABA (American Birding Association) was just recently formed, and with their publications birders could connect with information of hotspots, trip lists and their obsession that only other birders could understand. The era of "birdwatching" that gave the impression of middle aged reserved individuals walking through the woods was now paved over by a new era of the "birder's". These were the young, the passionate, the active intense "storm-troopers" of birdwatchers, that now had a network. This was helped through the ABA and their publications that made these individuals connect, not only through the literature but in the field. Of course, with this newly formed organization, and all its information of the locations of birds that were originally only known by the local experts, a competition came about. Who could find the most birds in one year. The big-year. The winner would gain instant recgnonigtion and respect in this elite club.

This was the fuel that led Kenn to travel across North America, but he wasn't alone in this obsession. Those just as inquisitive, and even those with a lot of money to travel also took in the challenge. During this time when birders were getting new birds, scientists also studied bird biology and lumps of species (such as the Dusky Seaside Sparrow and Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow) through a monkey wrench into the pursuit of the largest list of North American birds. Not only that, but the AOU (American Ornithologist Union) still included Baja California on the AOU list in 1973, the same year that Kenn tried to break the previous big year list.

The excitement of the chase gives life to this book, but the people that Kenn meets along the way, along with the conservation issues raised is its heart. In one chapter entitled "The fall of a Sparrow" Kenn remarks his search for the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, a bird that has been lumped into one species, the Seaside Sparrow, along with the rarer Dusky Seaside Sparrow. As he searched and eventually found the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, he could see human development destroying the habitat a this small bird. However, now that the AOU lumped this species, it seemed that no one cared to add this bird to his/her list as it is not technically a species. Later, biologists thought these very localized subspecies in Florida might in fact be real species. To late for the Ducky Seaside Sparrow, this bird became extinct in 1987. If birders were more interested, if these sparrows were full species, could more have been done to save the Dusky Seaside Sparrow?

I don't want to give too many details to this book but it is a must read in my eyes. Believe it or not it is filled with everything that an action packed fiction has; facing challenges with mixed victories and loses, dangerous, sometimes life threatening situations, and even a little romance. The difference is it is taken place in the real world, with the protagonist just as real as you and I. As a birder, having read a book written by another, I'm sure other birders will share an even deeper understanding that only we as a community of nature lovers can truly appreciate.

Kingbird Highway, is written in a way that I believe even non birders can feel that same connection.

1 comment:

  1. VERY interesting about more care being given to birds with full species status. Also, good review!

    This is similar to an article I once read in support of making Lake St. Clair a Great Lake. At first I thought it was just silly but the author had a valid point. If it received Great Lake status, it would immediately hold different laws for hunting, recreation, environmental policy, etc. It could save the lake. I thought that was really interesting and the subspecies issue is quite similar. When you attach specific names/designations to a species or area, new laws come into play (as well as how people perceive that thing...subspecies goes extinct? Well, big deal. SPECIES goes extinct? Now we're concerned).