Kenn Kaufman, birding guru, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m associated with National Audubon Society (currently as field editor for Audubon magazine), and I cooperate with other groups, but 90 percent of my work is freelance. All of my focus is on getting more people interested in nature: not just nature as an abstract idea, not just nature as scenery, but nature as a complex of distinct species interacting in healthy ecosystems. If I gave myself a job title, it might be “recruiter” — always trying to enlist more people to care about biodiversity.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Real success for me, died-and-gone-to-heaven success, would be a world in which every adult and teenager could actually recognize fifty species of animals and plants native to their own region, and actually gave a damn about the continued survival of those species.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?
The conspicuous things are public-speaking gigs to live audiences and sometimes on talk radio or television. And I spend some time in the field, photographing things and taking notes. But the vast majority of the time I’m at the computer, working on book projects. For the last several years, I’ve been working on my own series of nature identification guides, the Kaufman Field Guides. These are intended to be easy to use, to make that first step into natural history as easy as possible. Guides to birds, butterflies, and mammals are already out. Right now I’m finishing a general guide to insects. My coauthor, Eric Eaton, and I have agreed that this categorically will not be a pest-control book. Rather, the theme is: “Insects are cool!” We can’t illustrate all 90,000 species of North American insects, but we try to convey the dazzling diversity, the fascinating behavior, and the essential ecological role of these critters. After insects, I have guides to reptiles, amphibians, and trees in the works.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I was a rabid birder by the age of 6, and by my early teens I was pursuing everything in nature: dragonflies, lizards, ferns, you name it. Then at 16, I went out on the road, hitchhiking around the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and although I was still interested in everything, most of my effort went into finding birds. (This was in the mid-1970s, when it was still sort of safe to travel that way; I wrote about those experiences in a memoir, Kingbird Highway.) My success as a birder led to jobs as a leader of international birding tours, first for Wings Inc. and then for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. I also managed to land a job as associate editor with American Birds, a semi-technical magazine then being published by the National Audubon Society; and in the biggest break of all, I got a contract to write and illustrate a book for the Peterson Field Guide series: A Field Guide to Advanced Birding.
Up to that point, I’d been catering to the serious or “hardcore” bird-watchers, but in 1990, the year my Advanced Birding was published, I had a change of heart. It dawned on me that bird habitat was disappearing at an alarming rate, and that we crazed bird maniacs couldn’t do anything about it, because there weren’t enough of us. We spent all our time arguing with each other about fine points and didn’t look at the big picture enough to see how scary it was. As keen birders, we didn’t have enough votes to elect a small-town mayor, let alone to affect any larger policies. So I decided we didn’t need more serious birders who could discuss the molt sequences of third-year Thayer’s gulls; instead, we needed a lot more people who had maybe seen a yellow warbler and who understood that there was a connection between this attractive bird and its need for habitat.
Having come to that conclusion, I started communicating more with the general public. By the mid-1990s, I developed a new method of illustrating field identification guides starting with photographs and editing them digitally to make the photos directly comparable. Houghton Mifflin Company, the same outfit that had published the Peterson Field Guides, decided to gamble on this new approach, and our Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America finally came out in 2000. I’ve been running on further guides ever since.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
I hate to say this, but when you’re trying to get more people interested in birds and nature at the most basic level, as I’m doing, a lot of the opposition and obstruction comes from “serious” birders and naturalists who want to set the bar too high for newcomers. They’re zeroed in on their own area of interest, and they can’t see the conservation value of having large numbers of enthusiasts whose interest is more casual but still genuine.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised in my dealings with hunters’ organizations. Groups like Ducks Unlimited do outstanding work in protecting habitat, of course, setting an example that the bird-watchers would be well advised to emulate. In talking with these people, I find them wary at first, as if preparing for the possibility that I might be some animal-rights freak, but they warm up quickly when I talk about birders and hunters working together for conservation.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in South Bend, Indiana. Currently in the process of moving from Tucson, Arizona, to Rocky Ridge, Ohio. No one’s heard of [Rocky Ridge], but I’m five minutes away from Magee Marsh/Crane Creek, one of the great hotspots for bird migration on the continent.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Hearing that my good friend Ted Parker had been killed in a plane crash. Parker was only 40 years old, but he was already the leading light on bird conservation in the American tropics. This was a tragedy on a personal level and a major loss for the cause of protecting biodiversity.
What’s been the best?
Just a couple of months ago … I’d spent four years trying to convince my publisher that my field guide to North American birds should be published in Spanish. After all, there are close to 30 million people in the U.S. who speak Spanish at home. The publisher was apprehensive that there wouldn’t be a market for this book, so ultimately I paid for the translation myself, did all the prep for getting it ready to print. This March, we went to Portland, Ore., where the local Audubon chapter was doing outreach to the local Hispanic community, and I did an evening program to introduce the book. Well, we had something like 150 people there, whole families, lots of kids, and we had this rowdy session with my fractured Spanish, talking about bird-watching as a great family activity, and a number of these young fathers were coming up afterward to buy the book and tell me they were going to take their kids birding. It felt like a validation of what I was doing. I’m losing money on the book, but I think it can make a difference and get a new audience turned on to nature.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I’m infuriated by dishonesty. Look at the fight over drilling in the Arctic Refuge. A lot of the proponents of drilling have claimed that the coastal plain is a “barren wasteland,” or compared it to “the dark side of the moon,” and that’s plain wrong. That coastal plain is teeming with life in summer, with flowers and butterflies and animals, and with birds that have migrated thousands of miles to nest there. We can debate whether it’s worth destroying some of that life in order to extract the oil, but the debate should be framed in honest terms.
Who is your environmental hero?
My hero (and, in some ways, role model) was Roger Tory Peterson. He invented the modern field guide, and he was always working to increase public interest in nature.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
Ronald Reagan. Before Reagan, the Republican Party and conservatives in general were not strongly anti-environment. Reagan’s administration accelerated the trend toward conservatives trashing the environment (and environmentalists) to create short-term increases in profits for their wealthy donors. By the time Reagan’s eight years in office had ended, anyone who wanted clean air or clean water or biodiversity or healthy ecosystems was being labeled as a liberal, a left-wing radical. The environment had crystallized into a left-vs.-right issue. Even today, of course, there are plenty of Republicans who are good environmentalists, but the overall party platform goes the other way. The George W. Bush administration obviously has a bad track record on the environment, but it was Reagan who unthinkingly set the stage.
What’s your environmental vice?
With powerful computers, digital cameras, stereo systems, and speakers, I burn a lot of electricity — more than my share.
What are you reading these days?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
None of them. C’mon, most stereotypes about us were invented by people who have economic reasons to try to discredit us.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Depends on the month. Northwestern Ohio in May; prairie provinces of Canada in June; cloud forest in the Andes in December. Et cetera. Can’t choose just one.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
We haven’t given up on the truth about global climate change, even in the face of an administration that will flat-out lie about the scientific evidence to avoid inconveniencing any of their major donors. We’re not winning on this issue, but we haven’t backed down, either, and eventually the tide may turn our way.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
We do a terrible job of communicating with the public about biodiversity, and that’s partly because many environmentalists don’t know about it themselves. I know people who are highly placed executives at environmental organizations, even organizations that are dedicated to conservation of birds, wildlife, and their habitats, who are utterly clueless about nature, that is, about the real world. They’re working to protect bird habitat, but they wouldn’t recognize a robin if it landed on their desks.
And the general public is even more uninformed. Right now, you know, it’s May, and migration is at its peak, with literally billions of birds on the move, and most people don’t know it. There are fifty species of warblers moving north across the U.S., hundreds of millions of individuals, birds that play vital roles in our ecosystems, and the average American has never consciously seen a warbler. How can you really work for biodiversity if you don’t know it exists? Every environmentalist should try to learn something about the real world, i.e., the world of nature, and our place in it.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I’d make basic natural history and basic ecology required subjects in all our elementary schools.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
At 18? Beggar’s Gift, out of Wichita. My brother J.B. was their bass player. Today? Spoiled Rotten, out of Findlay, Ohio. My girlfriend Kim is their lead singer. You see a pattern here?
What are you happy about right now?
Lots of things. The aforementioned lead singer: She’s also an expert field biologist, and education director for the Black Swamp Bird Observatory; we can do great things together. The aforementioned Spanish edition of my bird guide: I think it can make a difference. The Kaufman Field Guide to Insects: It’s almost finished, thank God. The fact that it’s May: The northward migration of the birds every year is like a resurrection, a symbol of hope. Life is good.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Learn to recognize, if you can’t already, 50 native plants and animals of your own home region … or in other words, make a basic connection to the real world!