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Discovery and Desire in the American Wilderness

by Kenn Kaufman

Pub Date: May 7th, 2024
ISBN: 9781668007594
Publisher: Avid Reader Press

A well-informed history of American birds and birding by an author with a lifetime of knowledge and passion for his subject.

Kaufman, author of A Season on the Wind, is known for his bird guides and his leadership in conservation efforts. In his latest book, he weaves together several stories. He relates the history of early bird identification and the many missteps made by early naturalists. He recalls his own development, reevaluating John James Audubon, whose history as a slave owner, sloppy bird identifier, and claimant of others’ discoveries has tarnished his reputation. Kaufman vividly re-creates the challenges early American naturalists encountered in their race to discover new birds. They labored without the tools birders take for granted today, and some of the bad guesses created decades of confusion. Audubon made his share of mistakes, including some that took years to correct, but his iconic Birds of America series of paintings and prints introduced American birds to the world. Kaufman even attempts to replicate Audubon’s techniques, using the same methods and materials, and those re-creations highlight Audubon’s accomplishments. The author balances Audubon’s shortcomings with his immense accomplishments: “We know Audubon committed scientific fraud, plagiarizing some points and inventing others…but he also put forth extraordinary effort in seeking knowledge. Can we give him credit for the good work he did, while acknowledging all that was wrong?” It’s a question American birders are still answering. General readers may get bogged down in chapters devoted to the subtle differences between birds in the same family, and Kaufman could have been more explicit about the extent of habitat destruction that has decimated bird populations. Still, he is a graceful writer, his commitment to his subject shines through, and the beautiful illustrations make this book a bird lovers' delight.

A deeply satisfying read for anyone interested in birds and birding.