To See Every Bird On Earth

On the edge of the small town of Patagonia, Arizona is a small, nondescript house with some bird feeders in the backyard: Paton’s. This may not sound unusual, but what’s remarkable about Paton’s is that the feeders there regularly attract southeast Arizona specialties – especially hummingbirds – that are hard to find elsewhere, and that the owners are more than happy to have birders park on the street and skulk around their backyard. There’s a donation box to help keep the feeders filled and some seating under an awning. It’s a tiny impromptu bird sanctuary.

I visited Paton’s with my parents on a trip with my parents this spring. We had eaten lunch at the picnic tables at the Nature Conservancy preserve down the road, watching swarms of Black-chinned Hummingbirds coming and going at the feeders there, and someone had mentioned that Paton’s had a Violet-crowned Hummingbird visiting regularly. The Violet-crowned is one of those special birds whose range only crosses the border into the U.S. in the far southeastern corner of Arizona, and I was anxious to see it and add it to my life list. We found a space to park in front of Paton’s and walked around to the back, where several other birders were already intently watching the feeders. After about thirty seconds, a hummer with an orange bill, white front, and purple cap appeared, took a drink, and then returned to the bushes.

Check. We had places to be, so we immediately left and went on to our next destination.

My Violet-crowned Hummingbird sighting does not reflect my usual approach to birding. As much as I enjoy birds, I have an ambivalent relationship with listing. I keep a life list—currently approaching 600, a respectable total—but I’ve never kept the detailed state, county, and year lists of many birders (this year’s attempt notwithstanding), and I usually don’t treat new species as just another check mark, ticking one off and immediately moving onto the next. I literally am I birdwatcher, in that I like to actually watch and enjoy them. However, there are people for whom the hobby is all about the list and nothing but the list.

I just finished the book To See Every Bird On Earth by Dan Koeppel, which is the true story of one extreme lister as told by his son. A lot of the information about the history of birding included in the book wasn’t new to me (I could already have described the contributions of John James Audubon, Frank Chapman, and Roger Tory Peterson), but the story itself was interesting—the glimpse into the psyche of someone obsessed with the list. What amazed me was that the author’s father claimed he didn’t particularly like birds, he just like adding to his list. Another “Big Lister” described in the book didn’t even know anything about bird identification; he just paid guides to lead him to new species and tell him what they were. Many of the people in the book kept also kept lists of things that had nothing to do with birds, of the registration numbers of planes they’d traveled on, of different kinds of cheese they’d tried on their travels, things like that. Big listing sounds like a completely different hobby from the kind of birdwatching I do.

If you’re only ever going to read one book about competitive birding (and I wouldn’t blame you at all if that’s the case), I would still recommend The Big Year over this one. However, if you’re interested the psychology of what might drive someone to travel the world in search of six, seven, eight thousand different species of bird and how their obsession affects the rest of their life, To See Every Bird On Earth is worth checking out. Me, I’m content with having a list well below one thousand and continuing to enjoy every meadowlark and nighthawk I see as much as I did when they were lifers.

Anyone else read any good books lately? Share in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “To See Every Bird On Earth”

  1. I’ve read several books about extreme birding but hadn’t seen this one. Will have to check it out. Although I actually do keep a list of all the birds I’ve seen (just over 200 at this point), I’ll never be a competitive lister. Like you, I enjoy really watching the birds rather than just ticking them off on a list.

    That being said, however, I thoroughly enjoyed “Birding on Borrowed Time,” about Phoebe Snetsinger’s odyssey around the world to see as many birds as she could before her illness took her life. She took copious notes about the birds she saw, which eventually numbered over 8,000 species. Fascinating.

  2. While I love keeping various lists (yard lists, year lists, lists of birds I’ve held or fed from my hand), I am a watcher at heart, too. When someone asks me what my favourite bird is, I usually say “the one I’m watching now”. I saw a Purple Finch today, not an unusual bird for these parts, but he was singing away in a tree in his gorgeous raspberry red finery, and I was happy to watch and listen for several minutes. While watching him, he was my favourite bird…just as the phoebes nesting under the outhouse roof were my favourites while I was watching them, or the Chipping Sparrows that bring their babies to my feeder are my favourites while at home.

    “Kingbird Highway” by Kenn Kaufman is one of my favourite books, and I liked “Life List: A Birder’s Spiritual Awakening” by Chris Dunford, though this book (about a birder visiting Churchill, Manitoba) is equal parts birding and spirituality.

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