Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review: Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman

It is book review time here at The Year of Birds! We will have plenty of these as a relatively regular feature, or at least whenever we have time to read bird-related books and talk about them. And while the format may change with different reviews, today we are having a question and each of us give our own answer to it as it relates to the book. Yes, you can probably note that Damon can be long-winded and meandering, but you've already read enough on this site to know that already.

So, what is the first book of the Year of Birds Book Club? Is it the obvious The Big Year? Nah, since we both read that years ago. Nope, today we are reading Kingbird Highway, by Kenn Kaufman. Is it just a story of him hitchhiking his way in search of birds and the reason for the extraneous second 'n' on his first name?

Question: Did you learn anything from this book that will improve your birding?

Damon: Yes, absolutely, but also no, not really. There are a couple of reasons why I think this, and not all of them are obvious. I’ll break it up into sections!

-Birder culture. This book really shows how birders behave and interact, though you must remember that this is with really hardcore birders. Reading the book I felt like I was along for the ride on some of those birding trips and, in a strange way, made me feel more at ease afterwards when I ran into a group of birders. I will say that without reading that book, I might not have chatted with a birding group I saw on Saturday and definitely wouldn’t have gone out with the Sunday birding group at Heinz.

-Techniques. The whole Northern California philosophy is something I wholeheartedly endorse and one that I’m not sure he really grasps during the arc of the book. But one small line where he talks about Ted Parker’s philosophy of each step while birding being a new birding experience to look around really hit home for me. Not saying that every step is a stop and look around, but more of every step is a new angle, a new opportunity, and something new that is different from the previous step and leads to a different birding experience with each step. Sort of like never stepping in the same stream twice, but never birding the same place twice. Yeah, I ramble, but when I read it I really understood and now I consciously think about this as I go birding.

-But…the book is a memoir and he doesn’t actually talk about anything that makes you a better birder directly. Sure, he talks about philosophy and all, but the book isn’t meant to educate on birding ability. I think the fact that we can take anything from it is gravy.

-Finally, I think the biggest point that can make you a better birder is something that comes out of the book in spite of what he writes. He drops out of high school, does not go to college, and pretends to be a hobo for years to go birding, but this actually probably makes him a worse birder. This really comes to light during the search for the Spotted Redshank when the person who figures out it was not simply a birder, but someone who not only took the time to study and watch the bird, but who had spent time and had experience studying birds in depth. This is something that is sorely lacking with Kaufmann who, despite spending years wandering and looking at birds, does not really study them. He talks about this, but his biggest failing is that he did not stay in school and spend time studying birds. No, not necessarily in books (though that helps), but studying similar to the academics (which he seems to simultaneously like and dislike at the same time) who do just that.

This doesn’t mean that he was a bad birder because he was not an academic, but more that being a good birder is being one who studies and is familiar with the birds. Not in a cursory way that checks it off the list, but in a more in depth way that really tries to ask and answer questions.

Your thoughts?

Paul: Did I learn anything from this book that will improve my birding?

-Yes. I think the book does make a general case that birding is not about simply ticking off a box and provides cautionary tales of misidentification. It is not that it had not occurred to me, but I had not really thought through the idea that birding involves more than simply confirming a few identifying marks. I am increasingly thinking of bird identification as a multidimensional exercise whereby you integrate information on bird physical features (size, feathers, legs, beaks) with other key characteristics (song, behaviour, flying). Adding more information to the matrix provides greater and more confidence to an identification. I think the book solidified this idea for me and I will work harder now at knowing the whole ‘bird’.

I think that’s about all I could pull from the book in terms of whether it will change my birding approach or abilities.

Question: Do you think that hitch-hiking makes the Kaufman list more or less impressive? Explain.

Damon: Wow, now that something I had not thought of. First, let's be clear and say that he did not hitchhike the whole way. Even if you ignore the trips and planned outings he took with people, he admits that there was a large stretch of time where he was getting rides from other birders and even having them put him up in their places.

That said, I have two minds of this and it is reflected basically in what others were saying about the competition between him and the other big year guy. First, he has a huge advantage in that he does not have any schedule or any responsibilities holding him back which gives him THE most precious resource for this exercise: time. Having the freedom to come and go wherever and whenever was a real advantage for him.

Of course, the downside was even steeper. His advantage of time was diminished by the fact that it actually took huge amounts of it to get where he wanted. Going to Alaska? Man, I felt stressed and exhausted just reading his account of that. Going to see the birds that were reported in certain areas? Good luck with them being there when you get there in five days. All that time that is free? Yeah, most of it is standing on a roadside hoping for a ride. And the time is not that great if you are restricted in where you can go; it was only blind luck, for example, that he got a ride to the dump to see the Mexican Crows.

He acknowledges all of this in some form or another. So I would say that overall it is definitely more impressive, but more in a ‘foolhardy’ way rather than a ‘cool’ way.

Paul: I think the impressive part of this is that he has to go to out of the way places to see birds. I mean, think about how you bird now and how inconvenient it would be not having a car to take you directly to the marsh or woodlot. And on top of that, sleeping in vacant lots, eating catfood, and getting rides from complete strangers…yeah maybe foolhardy is the right word for this. I also agree that the hitchhiking part is complicated as he was often traveling to meet up with others who would take him places and put him up. So yeah.

Question: Early in the book he drops out of high school to basically go be a drifter and has his parents support him in his endeavor. As a parent, what were your impressions of this? How do you think your parents would have responded to that, and how do you think you would respond if your kid approached you with the same ideas?

Paul: As a parent, my answer would be no. My parents would have said no. I can not think of anyone that I know who would have endorsed this idea. Perhaps 1972 was a different era, a different with different ideas and philosophies? I don’t know. But in the here and now I can’t see how any one of sound mind would let their 16 year old son do this.

Damon: Yeah, as a parent I would have laughed my ass off at my kid and said 'no.' My parents? Well, being that I was the only child out of 4 who did not drop out of high school, I think they would have been fine, oddly enough.

I don't think it was that much a different time though, because he even writes how people gave his parents a hard time about it. There was a stronger hitchhiking culture back then, though, and I don't think he would be able to do that now. Funny thing is that the country was a lot more violent and dangerous back then, according to crime statistics (and he even gets mugged and attacked), but people are more wary nowadays.

OK! I think we should wrap this up. Here are my final thoughts!

It was an interesting book and he seems like an interesting guy, someone I'd like to meet some day (and go birding with, though I'd be nothing in comparison). However, I feel he was really held back by his life decisions and, deep down, he knows it. There is a subtle string of inferiority complex that comes through in the book when he talks about how he was in smart classes in high school, how he goes out of his way to say he is good at chess, and a bunch of other subtle things. I mean he is a smart guy, obviously, but I think he could have been a really good scientist if he didn't drop out. It wouldn't have kept him from birding, and he could have really done some good in the world.

The problem, of course, is that once you drop out of school you stop taking math, and once you stop doing and learning math while still young, you stagnate in it and are lost. And ecology and evolutionary biology are both pretty much all math (I can't tell you how many people that were undergrads with me would complain about this because they imagined it to be all field trips and easy classes). I think he probably made a good life for himself, but I can't shake the feeling that he could have been so much more. Maybe I am projecting?

But I'll be positive because I like the book. It was a good story and good adventure, and you can tell that he had fun doing it and loved it. I was really fascinated to see the obvious spite he felt toward people like the one guy who bought his way to a big year; he wouldn't even mention his name! I think we should read that book some time too.

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