An affecting story of a son’s efforts to understand his father’s obsession with bird listing—as well as a pleasurable journey through the astonishing world of birders who measure their counts in the thousands.
It all started in 1974, in Queens, with a brown thrasher. The author’s father, then 11 years old, was inexplicably smitten. Richard Koeppel would go on from there to tally more than 7,000 species. His family suffered from his abstraction, but it would be unfair to blame the birds, for Richard was a withdrawn man with demons from his childhood. His marriage ended in divorce when his son was quite young, and that in turn bestowed upon Dan his own demons. But the first-time author does not invite our pity, even though his writing is brushed with sorrow; indeed, readers will admire his courage in keeping after his father and take pleasure in the heart-gladdening connection they have made over the past few years. Although Dan never really puts a finger squarely on Richard’s birding mania (somehow, the comment that “it’s all about the numbers” doesn’t fill the bill), he does explore a few possibilities. The thirst for gaining perspective on our place in the world drives some birders, since the sheer number of species makes one think long and hard about evolution and the complexity of ecosystems, and of course birding is a good place to hide from life’s many miseries. In addition, the author recounts with descriptive ease trips he took with his father to bird—pretty interesting, once he got past the point where his father looked at birds and he looked at his father. Among his vest-pocket biographies of legendary listers, especially good are those of the few who traced a Zen-like evolution from looker to lister to purely curious, a state of combined emptiness and fullness.
Certainly not the happiest of lives, though it makes an irresistible story rich with idiosyncrasy—not to mention all those glorious birds.