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The Story of a Natural Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand

by Kenn Kaufman

Pub Date: June 30th, 1997
ISBN: 0-395-77398-9
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

You may not have found your loins quivering at the thought of a rose-throated becard, but Kaufman (Lives of North American Birds, not reviewed) has, and here he sings sweetly about the birder's ineffable fascination with all things feathered. By the age of 16, Kaufman knew what he wanted from life: to look at birds. So he dropped out of school—with the blessings of his admirably tolerant parents—and hit the road in search of birds. With very little money, he needed ingenuity to survive. He discovered, for instance, that a box of Little Friskies cat food could sustain him for a week. He gradually encounterd a subculture of birding aficionados and joined their ranks. In 1973, when he turned 19, he decided to embark on a so-called Big Year: to count as many species as he could manage in a year's time. The book is largely taken up with that quest. There are, of course, plenty of birds here, from the everyday to the extremely rare, but Kaufman also provides—in a winning, plain-spoken prose style—a Baedeker that covers the fine art of hitchhiking, crackling landscapes, and sharp profiles of other birders (as with any subculture, the personalities ranged from the repulsive to the sublime). The listing begins to pale by the end of the year: ``Views of birds are measured in milliseconds, in which bird songs are classified instantly, and then ignored, in which no precious moment of daylight could be wasted on aesthetics.'' Yet one can only marvel at how determined he was (he eventually counted 666 species) and at the purity of his enterprise, and join him in regretting that the compilation of lists has shifted ``away from knowledge and planning and experience, toward contacts and hotlines and money.'' For Kaufman, the pleasure now lies not in lists but in simply watching attentively. He makes us understand the joys of both in this frank, passionate book. (maps and drawings, not seen)