Meet Kenn Kaufman
Kenn is a world authority on birding. He's been watching birds since
age six. That's when he discovered to his disappointment that there were
no lions, tigers, or volcanoes in his Indiana home town. However, birds
were all over the place. At age seven he found a book in the library that
enabled him to distinguish between starlings and grackles, and his fascination
with identification began.
At age ten he bought some Sears binoculars, with $20 he'd earned doing
yard work. At 16 he began a hitchhiking trip around the US and Canada to
watch birds. At 19 he set a record for the most North American bird species
sighted in one year. He was associate editor of "American Birds"
magazine until it ceased publication. In 1992 he was honored by the American
Birding Association with the Ludlow Griscom Distinguished Birder Award.
Kenn Kaufman , author, artist, tour leader, speaker
Kenn's articles and illustrations have appeared in numerous birding magazines.
Field Guide to Advanced Birding, which he authored and illustrated,
takes field identification to a new level with its fine analysis of subtle
He also authored the massive, 675-page Lives
of North American Birds, which includes a brief life history of every
bird species found in North America. (Click on the picture of the book to
see Diane's review of it.)
His most recent book, The
Kingbird Highway describes his early adventures in birding.
The following interview of Kenn Kaufman by Diane Porter took place on
May 17, 1997, in Sioux City, Iowa, where he was the featured speaker for
the 1997 Spring Tri-state Ornithologists' Meeting for Iowa, Nebraska, and
Kenn Kaufman on Birding
DP: What do you think is the innate appeal of birds? Why are so
many people completely obsessed and enthralled with them?
Kenn: There are probably as many answers to that as there are
birdwatchers. Or people struggling to find answers. But I think that you've
got a combination of things.
The sheer aesthetic appeal. Birds are beautiful -- you can't get away
The intellectual challenge of trying to figure out what they are, trying
to find them and recognize them. It's not just like passively sitting there
and having a beautiful image thrown at you. You have to work at it. So there
is that challenge to be overcome.
And then just the sheer aliveness of birds has to appeal to people. Most
birds live at a level of intensity that we can't match. Watching a bird
I'm often reminded of just what an intense experience life can be.
DP: Do you think that birding is a pastime or entertainment on
a par with other pastimes or entertainments, such as video games, or following
a sports team, or any of the other things that people do? Is there anything
special about birding?
Kenn: Can we expand the question to take in other aspects of natural
history? If things had gone differently, I might have spent my life looking
at butterflies instead, although their songs aren't really much to get excited
If you are looking at aspects of natural history as a hobby, as a pastime,
in comparison to something like being a sports nut, following some particular
basketball team or playing video games, one big difference is that the birds
are actually real.
This is nature, this is real. Video games have just been around for a
short time. Basketball was invented a few decades ago, and a century from
now maybe nobody will even remember there was such a game as basketball.
Nature has been developing, evolving, changing for millions of years, and
birds have been around for millions of years. By going out and pursuing
natural history we're connecting with something that's actually real.
So I do draw a distinction there. I do think that it is something that's
more important and more worth while than sports or games.
DP: When someone is expressing some inkling of an interest in
birding, what do you foresee as the potential benefits if that person pursues
Kenn: In terms of something to gain, you take some little kid,
if he starts playing golf at the age of six instead of taking up birdwatching
at the age of six like I did, he'll be a millionaire by the time he's 22.
There's certainly nothing material to be gained by becoming a crazed birdwatcher.
And we don't necessarily gain popularity or social status or anything like
But mental health, spiritual health, even physical health -- I do think
there's a lot to be gained from it. But for someone just coming into it,
hearing about all the great benefits to be gained from it, I don't think
it's going to be very convincing, very compelling.
DP: Not as compelling as the vision of that bird that he's seeing
for the first time?
Kenn: I think that kind of spark is a lot more valuable.
DP: Do you have any words of wisdom for new birders?
Kenn: I guess my main advice would be not to get frustrated if
things don't make sense immediately. Birding is supposed to be enjoyable.
And some birds are hard to identify, and you are not going to work them
out right away. Some things will be confusing and you will have to let them
go. People will be happier if they don't let themselves get frustrated by
DP: You used to be a lister, and then you stopped being a lister,
Kenn: Yeah, I just gradually lost interest in it.
Kenn: I think I'd reached the point where it wasn't really doing
anything for me. I mean, in the early stages of birding, keeping a list
-- keeping life lists, or a yard list, county lists, whatever -- gives you
an incentive to get out, and I think it's good in that way.
I mean, I'm not anti-listing. There are a lot of good things about it.
And I know a lot of cases where someone decides to work on their county
list and as a result they discover a whole lot about the distribution of
birds, and all sorts of good discoveries come out of it.
But I was really interested in studying how to identify birds, and working
on a list doesn't do a thing for teaching you how to identify birds. Because
what you really need to do is spend more time looking at things even when
you already know what they are, studying and taking in details.
For me, I was living in Arizona. I had a life list that was way up there
and a big Arizona state list. But I got to the point where if I wanted to
study identification, then it meant sitting at some particular pond and
spending hours just looking in great detail at the Baird's Sandpipers or
something. Whereas, if I wanted to work on my list, what I would have to
do would be to dash around from one pond to the next, or call the hotlines
and go driving five hours out to the other edge of the state to look for
something out there (and maybe not see it).
So it required a completely different mindset. I figured that I really
wasn't going to learn the fine points of identifying birds if I still had
this incentive of chasing the birds for my list, so I just stopped.
Then when I started traveling to other countries, I never got around
to adding up, say, what happens if I add my Venezuela birds to the ones
from Costa Rica and Mexico. I never added up a world life list. And there's
been so much lumping and splitting that now I don't have the foggiest idea
of how many species I've seen in any geographic area. Except my back yard,
and my wife keeps the list for that.
DP: What is it that makes you want to study a bird in such fine
Kenn: I really want to know it. It's just not that satisfying
to go out, and a bunch of sparrows fly up, and somebody says one was the
Baird's sparrow, and you sort of check it off. There's no satisfaction to
Getting to the point where you know it's different, you can see that
it's different -- a lot of it is the appreciation factor, being able to
know that this really is a different species. There aren't any two species
that just differ in one field mark. If they're different species, there
are going to be a lot of subtle differences between them.
And if you get to see all of those, then you are learning more about
the world. You have a better understanding of the world around you if you
can get some sense of how this species fits into it.
DP: When we were talking earlier, you joked that doing Big Day
counts was your vice.
Kenn: Well, I was saying that now my vice is doing Big Days where
you are totally crazed on the list for 24 hours, and then you forget about
But I've known a number of people who were really keen birders who got
really wrapped up in working on their list, say their North American list,
and then they got to the point where they couldn't find new things for it
easily. And they'd spend a fortune going to Attu several times and flying
off to the other end of the country to chase hotline birds. But then those
would become fewer, the potential ones. They didn't have anything to replace
their listing, so they'd lose interest and stop enjoying birding.
And there are true stories about people going to Attu and just sitting
there in the hut next to the radio for three weeks waiting for a report
of some bird they haven't seen and they don't go out and look at anything.
It's sad to say, it actually happens. And that's the real downside of listing.
But I'm certainly not anti listing. I think for someone getting started
it's very worthwhile.
DP: Are there places in North America you haven't seen that you
still want to visit?
Kenn: Oh lots! There are tons of places that I haven't been to.
Whitefish Point, in Michigan, is a fabulous place for migrants, and I hate
to admit I still haven't been there at all.
The Queen Charlotte Islands, off British Columbia, I'd really like to
get there. There's stuff like an endemic race of Hairy Woodpecker that's
fairly different looking. There's an endemic race of Northern Saw-whet Owl.
It's sort of bizarre to think that here are these islands off the coast
of BC and they have got their own Saw-whet. I'd like to see that. And, apparently,
large numbers of Ancient Murrelets nest out there. That's where Tony Gaston
did his study of Ancient Murrelet. I'd really like to get to the Queen Charlotte's.
You know, if I stop to think about it, there are probably dozens of other
places. The Sand Hills of western Nebraska, I don't know that area at all.
I'd like to go there.
DP: So it isn't just that you want to go because you have missed
the Sharp-tailed Grouse and have to see this one species -- you're more
interested in the whole system that you would find in these various places.
Kenn: Well there isn't any bird that occurs regularly in North
American that I haven't seen, so, you know, it's not like I want to go see
the such-and-such, because I've already seen it.
DP: Are there other places in the world that you have on your
Kenn: Oh wow, yeah! You know the problem with traveling is that
you never cross anything off the list. Anyplace that I've gone so far, or
virtually every place, having been there once, I'm more interested to go
back a second time.
Like, before I went to New Zealand the first time, I wasn't that interested.
I knew there were some endemics there, but the total number of species wasn't
all that great compared to, say, Australia. But once I'd been there, I was
eager to go back. And having gone back, I'd like to go back again.
The list doesn't get any shorter. But probably at the top of the list
right now is Madagascar. There are whole families of birds that don't occur
anywhere else. Plus the chances to see the lemurs. The other aspects of
natural history are a big part of my interest, too -- getting to see lemurs
in the wild and some of the really bizarre plant forms there.
DP: I guess some of them may not be there too much longer?
Kenn: Yeah, well, I hate to think of that as a reason, saying,
well I better go see that -- it's gonna disappear.
I'd like to think that eco-tourism could help to save some of those species.
If there are lots of people who are going to Madagascar to see these things
and being vocal about it, then the government agencies dealing with tourism
will put some pressure on for saving habitat.
DP: You've been watching birds for a long time. Please look into
your crystal ball and tell me, with your perspective, what do you see happening
in terms of preservation of species over the next 50 years or so. Do you
think in fifty years we'll be looking back at spring migration in North
America the way we recall the bison and the Passenger Pigeon?
Kenn: Well, I hope it's not like that. I hope things don't disappear
to that extent. I think a lot of species are more resilient and adaptable
than we realize. I think it's inevitable we're going to lose some species
around the world, a fair number. But I'm optimistic that we're not going
to lose half or anything really drastic like that.
DP: Do you think the world's consciousness is changing about habitat
preservation and species preservation?
Kenn: Yes, there's a lot more interest in it now. Even looking
back twenty years, the amount of interest in saving habitat has increased
I went to talk to a seventh grade class in my old home town of South
Bend, Indiana. And these seventh graders, most of whom have never been very
far from northern Indiana, were really interested in the rain forest. They
knew about the importance of saving it. This was something they were getting.
They had good science teachers.
The level of awareness is growing, and I think the idea of the connection
between different regions is growing too. We're not quite to the point where
the person on the street knows it, but we're getting closer to realizing
that in order to see migrant birds in North America, we have to save habitat
in the tropics too.
DP: And you think birding is a force in this change in public
Kenn: I have to think that it is. The tremendous growth in popularity
of birding should be raising people's awareness of the natural world. It's
hard to prove, but I think it is in fact having a positive impact.
DP: Well thanks a lot Kenn. I know birders on the Internet will
be interested in your ideas. I'll let you know when it appears.
Kenn: OK, I'll have an incentive to keep checking the Web site.
--Copyright 1997 Diane Porter