Monday, August 21, 2006

Blog-erview with Kenn Kaufman

Mention the name Kenn Kaufman, and most birders' ears perk up. Just about everyone who's been birding at least a year or two has heard of the Kingbird Highway author, who's produced field guides about birds, butterflies, mammals and insects as well as other books. The naturalist also sketches, photographs, serves on WildBird's Advisory Board and speaks about birds.

The latter activity allowed me to meet Kenn when he visited Southern California to speak at Sea & Sage Audubon Society's annual dinner in 1999. I enjoyed meeting the soft-spoken fellow with the deep voice. We crossed paths again in fall 2004 during the Hummer/Bird Celebration in Rockport, Texas. While enjoying birds from the deck of a boat on a sunny day, Kenn said my flaming red, spiky hair resembled breeding plumage. I took it as a compliment -- and the most unique one of my life.

Without further ado, a peek into the thoughts of a unique birder.

Which do you enjoy more: writing about, painting, photographing or speaking about birds?
I enjoy them all when they're going well; these activities are so different that it's almost impossible to compare. Sketching birds from life is one of the most rewarding things, because it forces me to see details that I never would have noticed otherwise; sketching is really just an intense form of seeing. Speaking about birds is tremendously fulfilling when I can speak to a group of non-birders and have a chance to get them turned on to the subject.

How do you feel about rubber ducks?
I couldn't possibly get by without them. I mean, in my field guide, I had to describe the voice of Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, and it was easy: I just said, "It sounds like a rubber duck."

What if there were no rubber ducks? I'd still be sitting there trying to decide how to describe the Sulphur-belly's call. It's a terrifying thing to contemplate.

Where do you like to bird most often?
My new favorite spot is the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area in northwestern Ohio. It's right on the Lake Erie shore, and it's a tremendous migrant trap in both spring and fall.

It has good habitat for marsh birds, shorebirds, ducks, gulls, terns, but the highlight is the patch of woods on the beach ridge. That woodlot hosts major concentrations of migrant songbirds, and it gives me a great opportunity to study plumage variation and listen to callnotes of lots of individuals.

There are some days in spring when there are literally hundreds of birders on the boardwalk through the woods at Magee, but there are usually so many warblers and other migrants that there are plenty of birds to go around. And frankly, I love to see lots of people out birding -- especially when you see whole families out there, with even the younger kids digging the warblers.

Do you plan to offer more books in Spanish, and why?
I'm stubborn enough that I do intend to produce more Spanish-language books on nature. The Spanish version of my bird guide has been a huge drain on me financially -- I knew that I would lose money on the project, and sure enough, right now I'm about $40,000 in the red on that book. No matter how well it sells, I will never break even on it, but I'm not out to make money, I'm out to make a difference.

Right now, my wife, Kim, is coordinating a project (through the Black Swamp Bird Observatory) whereby people can donate copies of the Spanish bird guide, at cost, and they'll go straight to educational programs in Florida, the Southwest or northern Mexico. We don't make a penny on these, but we've gotten terrific feedback from people who have been able to use the books.

So, yes, I intend to get more of my bird and nature books translated into Spanish. Eventually perhaps the publisher will work out the distribution issues and start to see the value of these books, and I won't have to lose so much money on them personally.

Do enough birders "walk the walk" about habitat conservation?
I think we all have room for improvement there. I hate it when I hear about someone who pays big bucks to go on a birding trip across the continent and then grumbles about having to pay an entrance fee at a park or refuge.

The hunting and fishing communities understand about paying to support the resource, and birders could learn a lot from them. As a basic first step, all birders should buy the Duck Stamp -- it's a tremendously effective program that has provided for the protection of huge amounts of quality bird habitat.

Joining the "friends group" for your nearest national wildlife refuge is also a good move, and if birders were all willing to demand shade-grown coffee, we could have a major impact on protecting tropical forest habitat. Even in places like Cape May or Harlingen, where birders contribute a lot to the local economy, I've asked for shade-grown coffee in restaurants and gotten nothing but blank stares. The people there had never even heard of the concept. How can this be?

I wish birders were more willing to rock the boat and demand shade-grown coffee, demand good laws for habitat protection. We need to make more noise.

Who is/are your birding mentor(s)?
When I was a kid, my hero was Roger Tory Peterson (and he still is.) I did 99 percent of my birding on my own, so I needed guidance from books, and Peterson was my mentor-from-a-distance. I didn't actually meet him until I was 19. As a birder, writer, artist, photographer, speaker and conservationist, RTP was peerless, and he influenced me mostly through his books and magazine articles.

The birder who influenced me the most through direct example was the late Ted Parker. He was only a year older than me, but his field skills were extraordinary. I think he was the most talented field ornithologist of my generation.

Do you perform karaoke?
Not if you're lucky.

How do you encourage the younger generation of birders?
One of the best things we can do to encourage young birders is to avoid making birding seem like a dorky activity. I mean, we all know that birds are exciting, that birding is an activity requiring energy and brains and imagination, that it's the coolest thing ever, but sometimes we go along with that stupid stereotype of birders as dorks or wimps or weirdos.

We should fight that. We should speak out every time the media portray birders in a negative light.

My wife does great work in encouraging the upcoming generation. As the education director for our bird observatory, Kim's also the adult coordinator of the Ohio Young Birders Club. She's also the lead singer for a very good rock 'n' roll band, and that immediately gives her a certain coolness quotient to counteract that ridiculous old stereotype.


Blogger John B. said...

Great interview!

August 21, 2006 12:15 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Gracias, John!

August 21, 2006 12:17 PM  
Blogger Susan Gets Native said...

Here's a geek-out moment: While up at Magee Marsh this year for IMBD, I got to meet Kim, as she was helping me check out at the black Swamp gift shop. When I realized who she was married to, I became THE bird geek.
Kenn is right on about Magee Marsh. You practically stumble over the birds, it's so great.

August 21, 2006 6:46 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Yep, I'm curious about Magee; we ran an article about it in the Nov/Dec 2004 issue. I haven't been to that part of the state yet.

August 21, 2006 6:59 PM  
Blogger birdchick said...

I bet you anything that Kim took that photo, otherwise he would be wearing a blue shirt.

Great interview.

I think we need to plan a road trip to Magee. When I was working on the Ohio Calendar, a lot of records were from around that area.

Is Ohio becoming the new major birder nexus? We got Susan Gets Native there, BT3, Zickefoose, Kenn, Kimm...maybe NBB and I should move there...oh wait, the in-laws are there, scratch that.

I really do love my in-laws.

August 24, 2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Yes, indeedy, Kim took that photo, a couple hours before she became Mrs. Kaufman.

August 24, 2006 5:17 PM  
Blogger Patrick B. said...

I'm ashamed to say that after 6 years of birding, I finally got around to reading Kingbird Highway last week. I couldn't put it down. It was a great read. I have all of Kenn's other guides too. Good stuff.

August 31, 2006 5:37 AM  
Blogger Amy said...

Eh, shame pame. Makes more sense to be out there birding than to be in here reading, right? (c:

August 31, 2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

I read Kingbird Highway while I was sitting by a brook in Macedonia State Park - CT. It was a warm sunny day during spring migration. I read it straight through, although I did nod off a couple of times-(because sitting by a stream on a warm spring day is very relaxing).I also saw my first Scarlett Tanager on the same day. It was perched in a tree 15' away singing for about 10 minutes.-A great day it was!

February 14, 2007 5:37 PM  

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