As I’ve mentioned, it’s hot in Phoenix so I have not been birding as much as I would like. But, in June and July, I’ve been reading about birders and the ones who have books written about or by themselves seem to be a very obsessive bunch.
I’m on my third such book and I think that the books all could appeal to a more general audience because they’re not about the actual birds as much as about the choices these birders made in their lives. So here are a couple of mini-reviews:
Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds by Olivia Gentile is about Phoebe Snetsinger, a birder famous for having seen over 8,398 species (there are about 10,000 identified species in the world now) by the time of her death in 1999 (while she was birding in Madagascar). She still remains as one of the top Big Listers. She estimated that she spent about $2 million dollars in her pursuit. This book is far more than a book about birding, however. It’s about a woman’s desire to have her own accomplishments and rewards, it’s about balancing family life and personal interests, it’s about what do you owe others when their needs and wants might overshadow your own? How do you choose? Phoebe’s life may cause you to question your own choices.
I then read Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder by Kenn Kaufman. I thought Phoebe Snetsinger was obsessed but she was able to do her birding (albeit hers was throughout the world and Kenn’s was in North America) with plenty of money to back her travels. Kenn was only 16 when he hit the road to pursue his passion, with his parents’ blessings. At the age of 19, when he embarked on his winning Big Year, he was able to spend only $1,000 for the whole 12 months of crisscrossing the continent for 69,000 miles, much of it hitchhiking, and rolling out his sleeping bag any place he could find. Now one of the world’s top bird experts and bird artists, it paid off for him and he has given up listing for the joy of truly learning about birds.
As a birder myself on a far less grand scale, I loved hearing about the birds but I was mostly fascinated by how he lived during those early years. I’m about the same age as Kenn so I understand what the culture was like when he was following his dream and it was also a very exciting time for birding. Kenn (as did Phoebe) knew all the “famous” birders and ornithologists and many had a part in his successes.
I’m now about 2/3 through To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession by Dan Koeppel about his father. Dr. Richard Koeppel (who died in 2012) was also a Big Lister who saw over 7,000 species of birds, a number achieved by fewer than a dozen others at that time. It focuses on Dan Koeppel’s attempts to understand the obsession that ruled his father’s life, ruined his marriage, and strained his relationships with his sons. It also examines the culture of highly competitive birders who travel the world making lists of their sightings, and discusses the history and rules of listing. It also reveals the creative ways Dr. Koeppel made a living as a medical doctor to fund his extensive travels. All three books mention many other well-known birders, ornithologists, bird tour leaders, etc., and discuss their obsessions, too.
I won’t go into why I probably won’t be reading Harper Lee’s prequel/sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. It just seems to negate the original book too much and I’m not interested in the presumably racist content.