by Dan Koeppel
Publication Date: May 5, 2005
Genre: Memoir, Natural Science, Non-fiction
Publisher: Hudson Street Press
What drives a man to travel to sixty countries and spend a fortune to count birds? And what if that man is your father?
Richard Koeppel’s obsession began at age twelve, in Queens, New York, when he first spotted a Brown Thrasher, and jotted the sighting in a notebook. Several decades, one failed marriage, and two sons later, he set out to see every bird on earth, becoming a member of a subculture of competitive bird watchers worldwide all pursuing the same goal. Over twenty-five years, he collected over seven thousand species, becoming one of about ten people ever to do so.
To See Every Bird on Earth explores the thrill of this chase, a crusade at the expense of all else—for the sake of making a check in a notebook. A riveting glimpse into a fascinating subculture, the book traces the love, loss, and reconnection between a father and son, and explains why birds are so critical to the human search for our place in the world.
The other day, I was having my weekly coffee with friends when one of them said to me, (in relation to a FB post of mine she’d recently seen): “You’ve become a real Twitcher, haven’t you?”
I hadn’t started this book yet, but my answer was a resounding “no” for several reasons, though it was hard to really define them for her. Now that I have finished this book, it’s much easier, and I’ll get back to that at the end of my post.
To See Every Bird on Earth is meant to be, if you believe what it says on the wrapper, a book that explores the thrill of the chase across the world to witness as many of the earth’s birds as possible in a lifetime. There’s some of that, but mostly, it’s the culmination of what I’m guessing was a lot of therapy for the author; a psychological catharsis of his family’s dysfunction, written and published. In many ways, this book was marketed to the wrong demographic; those that find personal substance in others’ stories about personal journeys would find a lot to like in this book. Needless to say, it’s not my jam.
BUT having said that, in between the family drama being laid bare, there was a lot of interesting insight into the world of Big Listers. Big Listers are those that have seen thousands of the known species of birds in the world. Known species is a moving target, and is currently around 10 thousand. The biggest Big Lister has seen over 8 thousand. This is about big numbers, big money, and big obsessions – and very little about the birds. Koeppel, when he focuses on these people, does a better than credible job getting into their heads and their world and it was fascinating for me, in a rubber-necking kind of way. The chance to see the birds these people have seen is tantalising; how they go about it, like a military invasion, isn’t.
And ultimately, this is why I’m not a twitcher, neither of the hobby sized or obsessive Big Lister variety. True, I have the list of birds in my state, and I do check them off when I see them, noting the time and place. But I don’t count, I don’t plan, set goals, or study, and I’m embarrassed at how few bird songs I can identify after the 10 years I’ve spent tramping around the bush – and at how easily I can confuse myself over identifications.
But I have no desire to ‘do better’ because my hazy goal, set when I started this and unchanged since, isn’t to just see the birds. When I moved to Australia, not knowing how long I’d be here, I wanted to see Australia, I wanted to experience this place so far away from the rest of the world on so many levels. Looking for birds (which are, let’s be honest, the low-hanging fruit of the wildlife tree), makes me look up, down, and into the bush; I have to actually explore my surroundings, and in doing that I come much closer to actually experiencing this amazing land. The added bonus: not only have I seen (and am seeing) Australia in a way that will stay with me, but I have a new found sense of wonder wherever I go, including home to Florida. I apparently lived 90% of my life alongside hundreds of bird species I never knew about because I never paid attention. And by looking for the birds, I’m finding an entire world of wildlife right there for me to appreciate (or not, in the case of some).
So while I didn’t enjoy To See Every Bird on Earth as much as I’d hoped, I do thank its author for helping me clarify in my own mind my motivations for my avian hobby that definitely isn’t bird-watching.