Kenn Kaufman.

What work do you do?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

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.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

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?

Mostly scientific journals on entomology and ornithology. Also history: Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes; and current social commentary: Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains.

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!

Oh My God, You Thrilled Kenny!

Expert birder Kenn Kaufman.

In Kingbird Highway, your memoir of your crazy year of birding as a teenager in the 1970s, you describe an extraordinary experience that probably wouldn’t be possible to have today. What has changed, and what would you tell young birders who wish to follow in your footsteps?    — Lauren Braden, Seattle, Wash.

Tons of things have changed since the ’70s in American culture. For one personally relevant example, hitchhiking was an acceptable means of travel then; there were tens of thousands of us traveling that way, and drivers were accustomed to picking us up. Today you seldom see hitchhikers at all, and it wouldn’t be an effective (or safe) way of getting around.

But today there are vastly more bird-related organizations than there were, more opportunities for young birders to get involved and get entry-level jobs, more flexibility in university programs. If I were 16 today, I would stay in school and put my spare-time energy into involvement with a bird observatory or conservation group. So to any young person who is inspired by Kingbird Highway, I would say: Sure, follow my passion for the subject, but don’t do what I did, because the landscape has changed — there are different roads possible today.

It seems to me that if we could just get the growing numbers of birders educated and politically involved, we could make a big difference. What are your thoughts, and how do you think we can make this happen?    — Denise Ryan, Cheverly, Md.

A major frustration for many of us is the fact that these supposed millions of birders and naturalists have essentially no political clout. As one friend of mine puts it, birders are voiceless and largely clueless. This is another situation in which the bird-watching community could take lessons from the hunters’ and anglers’ groups in the U.S. These organizations have worked the political angle for years, and they know how to make their voices heard in Washington and in the state capitals. Last fall, I spent some time in Washington hanging out with people from Ducks Unlimited, and those very sharp individuals definitely had the respect and the attention of people at several government agencies. Birders’ groups have not cultivated such connections, and only a few have recently made their first tentative steps in this direction. It won’t happen in a serious way until some organization makes this a priority.

I’ve always been amazed at the number of “stamp-collector” birders who have no interest in conserving birds or their habitat. How can we convert this hunter-gatherer gene deviation into conservation concern?    — Bob Anderson, Norfolk, Va.

How can you convert a birder to an activist?

You mean, how do we change human nature? Peer pressure may help, and in fact it has already begun to make a difference. Twenty years ago, some bird-listers’ orgs like the American Birding Association were emphatically uninterested in conservation — not opposed to it, just insisting that it wasn’t part of their mission. Today the ABA is very active in bird conservation, and we’re getting to the point where birders with no involvement in conservation are starting to feel self-conscious about that. But we still have a long way to go.

All around us are the signs of land being bulldozed for homes and businesses. At the rate we’re going, in a few years, there will be nothing left! As a birder and environmentalist, what steps are you taking to protect animal habitat from development?    — Daniel Barker, Lakeland, Fla.

We can’t protect every acre of land that’s left, so we need to focus our attention on saving the most important pieces. That’s why the science is so important — we need to identify those habitats that are most critical to preserving maximum biodiversity. So buying land is only part of the solution; the research that precedes such purchases is important too. I support organizations that do effective work in identifying and protecting such critical habitats. Another thing we can all do every year is to buy the duck stamp, and encourage other birders to do the same. It’s not just for hunters. Money from the duck stamp program goes directly into purchasing and preserving wetlands that host numerous species of plants and animals.

What is your current stance on wind power’s effect on birds and bird habitats? My understanding is that the current wind farms have a “bird-friendly” design, but there are still some problems with the land that needs to be cleared. Also, could you explain the history between groups like the National Audubon Society and wind generation?    — Michael Wentz, Portland, Ore.

The amount of land being cleared for wind farms doesn’t seem to be huge, so I’m more concerned about wind power’s impacts (literally) on birds themselves than on bird habitats. Obviously wind is a “clean and green” source of power, and in general I’m very much in favor of it, but in terms of the effect on birds, it’s all about location. Some sites that have strong and consistent winds are also major passage sites for migrating or foraging birds, and there’s the potential for lots of bird mortality at those sites. So we have to look at wind power on a site-by-site basis, and gather data at all times of year, to know whether a wind farm at a particular spot is going to be a big bird killer. Incidentally, birds aren’t the only potential victims; some wind farms in the Appalachian region have killed far more bats than birds, and of course bat conservation is an issue of concern as well.

Different organizations have taken different stances on wind power. There has been some confusion over the National Audubon Society‘s position. In the early 1990s, a scientist who worked for Audubon suggested that a moratorium on new wind farms might be necessary, but the society itself never adopted such a policy. More recently Audubon has come out in support of wind power so long as sites are chosen with care.

With the recent incredible news about the discovery of an ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, do you think it will pull money away from other, less glorious species currently on the endangered species list or perhaps waiting to be listed?    — Jeremy Taylor, Selkirk, N.Y.

That’s a good point to consider. In this case, though, I believe that a major percentage of the money to be spent would go toward protecting a big block of high-quality habitat. This habitat — old-growth southern swamp forest — would automatically support a whole host of lesser-known and less-glamorous species, so the ivory-bill is not the only creature that stands to benefit from this action. Protecting habitat of any kind has broader positive effects than, say, a captive-breeding program for one species.

Do you think that the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arkansas Nature Conservancy have the resources to adequately protect the ivory-bill from the hordes of birders who will want to come and search for it? Also, how does protecting this bird square with the laudable goal of finding just how many of them there are in the Big Woods area, which necessitates teams of scientists and birders combing the refuges?     — Kathy Reiser, Houston, Texas

This is a devil’s-advocate position, and of course we’re all concerned for the safety of the species, but I’d say the woodpecker is doing a good job of protecting itself. Consider: teams of searchers already have spent months, with thousands of hours of field time, to get a total of seven plausible glimpses of the bird, and still it has been seen only in flight. The only material evidence of the bird is a four-second fuzzy video that was shot almost by accident more than a year ago. If the potential hordes of birders seriously consider the odds, they’ll have second thoughts about just running down to Arkansas for the weekend.

At this point we know essentially nothing about where the birds are (or where the bird is, or was …). The potential habitat there occupies a huge area, and there’s no way it could all be cordoned off and made off-limits to all visitors. Rather than trying to keep everyone out, it would behoove the Nature Conservancy to coordinate the efforts of any volunteer searchers. With more precise information, we might be able to protect the core areas that the birds are using. For that matter, it would be helpful if someone could get a really diagnostic video, to silence those who are questioning the validity of the Arkansas records.

With the recent discovery of the long-lost ivory-billed woodpecker and Gale Norton’s announcement of plans to protect the bird and its habitat, do you think the Bush administration is playing both political sides of the Endangered Species Act? In one breath the administration wants to remove barriers to logging sensitive habitat, but in another breath they are claiming protection for the ornithological discovery of our lifetime. And have you been to see this bird?    — Sebastian Chambers, Washington, D.C.

In my opinion, the Bush administration has done more to damage forests than to protect them. For example, the so-called “Healthy Forests” initiative was mostly designed as a giveaway to lumber companies, and the recent opening up of formerly roadless areas in the national forests will cause serious damage in some areas. And this administration has shown no support for the Endangered Species Act in general. But if they’re willing to take steps to protect ivory-bill habitat, we should be as quick to praise good actions as we are to criticize bad actions.

Have I been to see the bird? No. In years past I have searched for ivory-bills in other states. I’m not going to go into the Arkansas sites unless I’m specifically invited by The Nature Conservancy or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I’m encouraging other birders to refrain from blasting in there, and I intend to practice what I preach. Maybe this was the very last individual, and maybe it died last month, but in case there’s still a viable population, we need to do whatever we can to give them space.

How do you feel about keeping birds as pets?     — Sydney Nash, Santa Cruz, Calif.

I’m neutral on the question of keeping birds as pets as long as those birds have been bred in captivity and hand-raised, not taken from the wild. The pet trade has had a devastating effect on the populations of some parrots and other tropical birds, because so many of the birds are taken out of the wild, either captured as adults or taken as nestlings, sometimes with the nest trees even being cut down so that the thieves can get to the young more easily. If someone is going to keep pet birds, they have a responsibility to be absolutely positive that those birds were not stolen from the wild.

Our Portland, Ore., rescue center states that at least one-third of their rescued birds are due to predation by outside cats. I have also read that the American Bird Conservancy says that after habitat loss, outside cats are responsible for the decline of songbirds. What can we do about this serious problem?    — Enid Griffin, Portland, Ore.

Habitat loss is far more serious than the cat problem, since habitat loss affects the most specialized species while cats kill mostly common suburban birds. But outdoor cats still do a lot of damage, and this is especially true in places like parks where feral cats are being fed by well-intentioned but misguided people. Well-fed cats don’t lose their hunting instinct — they’re just in better shape so they’re more efficient predators. The American Bird Conservancy (as you mentioned) has an active program, called Cats Indoors!, to discourage pet owners from letting their cats roam outside freely. There’s good evidence that indoor cats are healthier and live longer anyway, so it may be possible to appeal to cat lovers on that front even if they don’t care about the survival of our wild birds. Public education is the key.

Where can I purchase your books in bulk so I can hand them out when I’m in Mexico?    — Mack Sanders, Bolinas, Calif.

Thanks for the question! The guide covers mainly the U.S. and Canada, so it won’t include all the tropical birds in southern Mexico, but it does include all those of a substantial area of northern Mexico. There’s an organization called Birders’ Exchange that does a lot of good work in Latin America, collecting used binoculars, telescopes, and other equipment from birders in North America to distribute to researchers and ecotourism workers in the tropics, and they’ve agreed to help distribute copies of my Spanish guide in northern Mexico and other areas where it might be useful. I’ll be working with Birders’ Exchange myself, helping to provide them with the books at low cost, and I’ll work with anyone else who wants to give the books away. For this kind of thing, I can arrange to get copies of the books from the publisher at approximately half the cover price. The whole point is to get the books into the hands of the people who can get the most good out of them.

I am from the Alaskan Arctic, and where I live we see so much proof right under our noses of massive climate change. One of the changes is in bird species — what do you know about what is happening to them?    — Lesley Thomas, Seattle, Wash.

In looking at bird-life, we see massive evidence of the truth of climate change. Not only are there dozens of species that are steadily spreading northward, but in places where long-term records have been kept, we know that spring migrants are returning earlier, reflecting the overall warming of the climate. Still, it’s hard to establish the connection to declines of specific species. There’s so much that we don’t know yet, and that’s part of what makes this issue scary and hard to deal with. Of course, lots of people are scared by the issue, but they react in different ways. Most unfortunately, the Bush administration deals with its fear by going into denial, twisting the available science and twisting the arms of scientists to keep them from speaking up about climate change. I can understand Mr. Bush being afraid to confront the issue — after all, dealing with the causes of climate change could turn out to be inconvenient for some of his biggest corporate supporters — but he needs to start showing some backbone, to stand up to these powerful corporate interests, for the good of the American people and all other living things.

I became a birder four years ago after taking a beginning birding class at my local Audubon chapter, and birding led me to a passionate concern for the environment and to protecting habitat. But I find myself depressed most of the time over the state of the environment in this country and especially the Bush administration’s attitude toward all things environmental. How do you stay positive in the face of all the negative news?    — Lisa Meacham, Austin, Texas

One thing that keeps me feeling positive is to hear about individuals like you, who took up birding and became concerned about the environment as a result! And I try to take a long-term view. I’m sure there are environmental disasters ahead, and I’m sure that things will get worse before they get better, but I know that some diversity will survive no matter what we humans do to the earth. I think that we can work to lessen the effects of disaster and to increase the number of species that will survive past any environmental bottleneck, so I’m working toward maximum biodiversity a century from now, not just in the short term.

We need more eco-warriors like you in the world. How do we go about motivating people to reject complacency and get active now?    — Su P., Auckland, New Zealand

I know that negative motivation, i.e., motivation through fear, works for some environmental problems involving immediate threats to humans. But for preserving biodiversity, the threat posed by the loss of diversity is too nebulous for most people to understand, so I try to focus on positive motivation. Get people to experience nature for themselves, give them an encounter with wild things that are magnificent or beautiful or captivating, and maybe they’ll develop an emotional commitment to work for the continued survival of those species. There’s nothing wrong with using charismatic standard-bearers like pandas or cheetahs or whales, but it’s great if you can get people to connect with things they’ve actually seen in the wild, not just on television.

My question deals with subsidized predators, a term I have used to describe wildlife that gets a helping hand, usually food handouts, from people who don’t consider the consequences of their actions. In Alaska, where I live, we have people who feed bald eagles during the winter, which increases their over-winter survival and population. This happens on a grand scale in Homer, Alaska, where hundreds of eagles congregate for the daily feast. This has turned into a winter tourist attraction and brings money to the local community, but the eagle population in the region has steadily increased. The increased populations of (subsidized) predators are inflicting increasing predation pressure on other species. We have measured effects on Cook Inlet nesting seabirds. What would you recommend we do about this problem?     — Bruce Wright, Conservation Science Institute, Wasilla, Alaska

The only things we can really do are to document the problem and educate both the public and the policy-makers about the possible effects of such feeding. With most birds, of course, it doesn’t create a problem (see next question, though). But with large predatory birds like eagles or ravens, there will be side effects of any activity that increases their local populations. I understand that common ravens survive through the winter on Alaska’s North Slope by foraging at the garbage dumps at places like Barrow and Deadhorse, and I’ve seen these ravens ranging over the surrounding tundra in summer, raiding the nests of shorebirds and other migratory species. The artificially high numbers of these predatory ravens are undoubtedly hard on the populations of other species. The question is: at what point does this become enough of a problem that it requires remedial action from us? Constant monitoring of the situation is an essential first step.

I have been feeding birds for several years. I have seen an increase of cowbirds, starlings, and house sparrows. In the long run, are the feeders a positive or negative influence on propagation of the songbirds and native species?     — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.

House sparrows and European starlings probably had a serious impact on native species when their introduced populations were first spreading across North America, but by now they’ve achieved balance in most areas. They’re probably suppressing local numbers of some other birds, but they’re not driving anything toward extinction. Cowbirds, which parasitize the nests of other birds, represent a more serious problem. They’re native, but human activities have greatly increased their survival, so they’re having much more impact on other native songbirds than they did historically. If there’s a point when your feeder is mainly supporting a big flock of cowbirds, it would be best to stop feeding for a while.

Overall, bird feeding has probably enhanced the populations of a few species, but most kinds of birds never come to feeders at all — think warblers, flycatchers, vireos, sandpipers, etc. To me, the main value of feeding is that it can get new people, especially kids, turned on to birds, and hopefully they’ll go on to support conservation efforts.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.