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Kenn Kaufman

Kenn KaufmanMeet 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. A Field Guide to Advanced Birding, which he authored and illustrated, takes field identification to a new level with its fine analysis of subtle field marks.

Lives of North American BirdsHe 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 South Dakota.

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 from that.

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 about.

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 the interest?

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 that.

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 that experience.

DP: You used to be a lister, and then you stopped being a lister, right?

Kenn: Yeah, I just gradually lost interest in it.

DP: Why?

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 detail?

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 that.

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 it.

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 hit list?

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 tremendously.

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 awareness?

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


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