The Big Year: Interview with Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman, author of the Kaufman Field Guide series.

More than 30 years ago, Kenn Kaufman dropped out of high school and went on the road to do a Big Year. He later wrote about it in his book Kingbird Highway. Kenn, now a new contributing editor to Birds & Blooms with his wife, Kimberly, talks to us about that experience and how Big Year attempts have changed over the decades. You can also read more about Kenn on his website.

When did you do your Big Year?

It was 1973 the year I went all the way. I was 18 at the start of the year. I had actually made an attempt a year earlier, in January 1972, when I was only 17, but I didn’t get very far with that.

Your Big Year was out of the ordinary because hitchhiked the whole way. Without giving too much of you book away, can you give us a snippet of what you learned from that aspect of your journey?

For one thing, I learned to get along with people! If I got a ride with someone who was going hundreds of miles in the direction that I wanted to go, it was a powerful incentive to establish some rapport with that individual, find some common subject that we could talk about (usually it wasn’t bird-watching!) and generally make a good impression. So my Big Year definitely helped my people skills. I also learned to get by with relatively little, since I was living on less than a dollar a day most of the time. As a result, I learned to like the taste of dry cat food. Braised liver flavor was my favorite. Yum!

Name three of your favorite places from that Big Year.

Wow, only three?  OK:

1. Gambell, a native village on St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, out in the Bering Strait. You can see the cliffs of Siberia on a clear day. Millions of small seabirds nest on the island, and migratory birds from the former Soviet Union sometimes stray off course and wind up there.

2. The islands of the Dry Tortugas, in Florida. These little coral atolls lie 75 miles west of Key West. This is the site of a huge old brick fort built in the 19th century, and the site of huge nesting colonies of tropical seabirds.

3. The prairies of North Dakota in early summer. Most people don’t think of the Dakotas as a big birding destination, but those grasslands and ponds are just alive with birds in June, including some prairie specialties that are very hard to find elsewhere.

Did doing your Big Year satisfy you, or do you think you’d ever attempt another?

I don’t know if “satisfy” is the right word, but it was good to get it out of my system. That year I spent more time traveling from place to place than I did actually birding. After it was over, what I felt was an urge to go back around and take more time to really look at those birds. In Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa there’s a line about how it’s a true luxury to have time to be in the country and to move slowly, and I definitely know what he meant. During a Big Year you don’t ever have that luxury.

How have Big Year attempts changed since the 1970s?

Information and communication have changed so radically that there’s almost no comparison. Today, for example, if a rare bird is identified in Maine or Florida or California, birders all over the continent know about it within minutes. In the 1970s, if you had a lot of friends all over, you might have gotten a phone call about a rare bird within a few days after it was discovered—or you might not have. Today, a lot more is known about the occurrence of seabirds off our coastlines, about the timing of Asian migratory birds straying to Alaska and so on, so there are more species that a birder can reasonably try for.

Anything else you’d like to add?

In case there are avid teenage birders reading this, I should emphasize that the world has changed a lot since the 1970s, so no one should try to emulate my hitchhiking exploits. In today’s world there are different kinds of opportunities. If I were 17 today, I wouldn’t leave school to go chase bird lists. Instead, I would stay in school and get involved in some of the many youth programs being offered by ornithological societies, bird observatories or birding associations. There are some fantastic opportunities for birders of all ages right now, so it’s an exciting time for those who are just getting started.



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