To See Every Bird on Earth
A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession
What drives a man to travel to sixty countries and spend a fortune to count birds? And what if that man is your father?Prologue
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. BACKCOVER: “Marvelous. I loved just about everything about this book.”
My father and I were drinking champagne on a remote island in the Rio Negro, the dark river that flows into the Brazilian Amazon. I’d hidden the bottle in my backpack, along with paper cups for the other members of our group. The toast was brief. For Dad, this was the moment he joined an elite cadre—fewer than a dozen others, living or dead, have ever seen more than seven thousand bird species, the milestone he’d just reached. It was the culmination of fifty years of watching. For the rest of our group, the Amazonian Black Tyrant—a small flycatcher that shares the same coloration as the river we were traveling—was just another number.
But it’s all about the numbers.
Dad and I had been traveling—up the river in creaky boats, along mud-packed roads, and through deep, wet forest—for nearly two weeks. I was on the verge of my fortieth birthday. It was the first extended period I’d spent with Dad since I was a teenager. Throughout my childhood, as well as now, our time together was focused on birds: Dad watching them, and me watching Dad watch them.
The group my father, Richard Koeppel, joined in Brazil is made up of people just like him: intensely dedicated, highly competitive bird watchers (or birders, as they prefer to be called) known as “Big Listers.” Approximately 9,600 bird species are found on earth. About 250 people have seen 5,000 of them; about 100 birders have reached 6,000. Several of the twelve or so birders at the seven-thousand level are racing toward eight thousand, a mark only two birders—only one now living—have reached.
If any air at all gets into the Big Lister’s hunt, it’s a compulsive need to count everything. My father counts books he’s read and cheeses he’s sampled. I’ve met Listers who tally the number of planes they’ve flown on, the states in which they’ve had Starbucks coffee, or their sexual conquests. Seeing every bird on earth is an eccentric pursuit. It can also be a tragic one. Phoebe Snetsinger, one of the two people to see more than eight thousand birds, became a Big Lister after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Given six months to live, she decided to forgo treatment and chase birds. She thrived and counted for seventeen years, and then was killed in a car accident on a remote road in Madagascar as she approached her 8,500th species. She’d talked about quitting because reaching numbers that high requires travel to distant and dangerous places, but she admitted that she was unable to stop. To my father, the only thing more important than his quest was cigarettes; despite the fact that he was a doctor, he couldn’t shake the addiction until, just after seeing his seven thousandth bird, he was stricken with both cancer and heart failure. As he recovered, he took comfort in his list, reordering it, putting a half-century of bird sightings into cohesive form.
As I packed away the champagne in Brazil’s Jáu National Park, the elation of the moment tempered, and I once again found myself—as I had all my life—becoming curious, trying to understand my father’s consuming passion. Why? Why count? For the past ten years, I’ve been trying to find the answer. The search has led to more questions, about science, personality, and desire. My father is a brilliant man who has lived a life that, in so many respects, didn’t turn out the way he wanted. He buried the sadness of his disappointments by watching birds, by tending his logbooks and checklists the way a gardener nurtures his blooms. On our trip, Dad and I connected in ways that were both lovely and difficult. I saw his self-destructive side, a part of him that for years has shut out family and love. And I saw his best qualities, a man with a gentle heart, hidden by pain, but not hard to detect upon careful inspection. The triumph of the list is the triumph of that hidden heart because it is proof not just of obsession, but also grace, and glory.
To see every bird on earth isn’t easy. It requires strategy, money, and time; it is sometimes dull, and sometimes dangerous, and very often absurd. The underlying “game” of birding is a labyrinth of mechanics, rules, and rivalries. There are birders who’ve been shunned for cheating, internecine fights over what truly constitutes a sighting (seeing is not the only form of believing in modern birding—currently, many birders consider a “heard” bird countable). Birders’ lists themselves are often moving targets, subject to frequent revision and categorization: You don’t just start at one; instead, you create multiple tallies, delineated by year, region, species, genus, and just about any other category a person could think of.
My father says his listing is “an addiction, just like any other addiction.” Though he spent a considerable portion of his medical career attempting to cure those with physical dependencies, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t care to engage in analysis of his motivations: “I can’t explain it. I can’t even say it ever gave me a sense of euphoria. It’s just what I do.”
But I want to explain it. I want to understand. I know Dad won’t agree with everything I’ve said in this book. I know he won’t share many of my conclusions about what drives him. He won’t be completely happy with some of the things I’ve revealed here. But that’s the nature of love, especially between father and son. What Dad has given me, through all the trouble and pain, and finally through triumph, is his legacy. I didn’t want it to be burnished and idealized. Dad’s story is so much more beautiful when it follows the alternately tragic and elating course of a real life.
As I was writing this book, I spent hours on the phone with Dad. I accumulated hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews with him. I was, of course, using birds as a way to find out about him, as a door into his life. Sometimes the interviews were tedious. They were occasionally fun; often they were painful. Dad was in a big hurry to get them done. At first, I thought this was because of his typical impatience for introspection. But then he let it slip. He was nearing his seventieth birthday: “I was worried,” he says, “that something would happen to me before you got the whole story. I wanted to get this done, so you’d have it.”
He wanted me to get through the list, as well, he wanted to pass it on. Once it was safely in my hands, it was up to me to determine what, exactly, I’d been given. It was only when I began to read between the seemingly dry and formal lines of the tally itself that I realized what such a lifetime of counting contains: the desire to find one’s own place in creation, pursued with a single-mindedness that so far has evolved only in humans. Seeing every bird is a way of seeing everything, of attempting to know everything. Such attempts mark human history, in religion and art as well as in science; they’re seductive, and sometimes dangerous. The story told here is about finding a way into that seduction—and finding a way back.
“Marvelous. I loved just about everything about this book.” —Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman
“A lovingly told story . . . helps you understand what moves humans to seek escape in seemingly strange other worlds.” —Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak
“Everyone has his or her addiction, and birdwatching is the drug of choice for the father of author Dan Koeppel, who writes affectionately but honestly about his father’s obsession.” —Audubon Magazine (editor’s choice)
“As a glimpse into human behavior and family relationships, To See Every Bird on Earth is a rarity: a book about birding that nonbirders will find just as rewarding.” —Chicago Tribune
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