Watching a Master at Work: Kenn Kaufman’s “Kingbird Highway”

Confession: I’d rather watch wildlife or write about my experiences than read about other people’s wildlife-watching adventures.

But the most important thing a writer can do to improve at the craft is to read good work. While it’s important to read widely, opening your mind to many different voices and influences, it’s critical to read in your field.

This year, I’m reading books about birding. And while I still would rather be out on my own adventures, I have just finished reading a book that was well worth the time indoors: “Kingbird Highway.”

The author, Kenn Kaufman, dropped out of high school at 16 to hitchhike around the country looking at birds. In 1973 he decided to do a “Big Year,” seeing as many North American species as he could. He became one of the year’s top two listers, however you do the math … and he did so on less than $1,000.

Imagine that — as a teen, he traveled throughout America and saw more than 600 species of birds in 365 days, on almost nothing.

There are so many things to like about this book. There is the classic story of a child becoming an adult. There is the setting, 1970s America, so recent yet so long ago. And there is the beauty of mad obsession as the author gives everything he’s got in an epic, all-encompassing quest.

The thing I admire most, though, is how Kaufman writes about birds. With just a few words, he can sketch specific things about a bird species, aspects of form and behavior that capture his attention and his heart. It’s evident on every page that Kaufman loves birds and appreciates their diversity and beauty. His skillful way of expressing those feelings invites readers to experience them as well. That’s a master wildlife writer at work.

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