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Interview with
Kenn Kaufman

By Fred Bouchard

Kenn Kaufman Brings a Kid's Clarity, Intensity, Simplicity and Joy to His Birds of North America

Kaufman Focus Guides: Birds of North America
Houghton Mifflin
2000
383 pages, Paper
7.5 x 4.5 x 0.7 inches
Digitally Enhanced Photographs
(Before & After Images)
Photographic Table of Contents
Quick Index

Compact, concise, clear! Kaufman's new field guide struck me as a fine field companion, not just as a best first guide for kids and starters, but also as a clear, logical quick field reference for all of us. The 2000+ photos are small, but they are mainly crystal clear. The guide has the same page count (384) as Peterson Eastern Birds but gains 20 pages of plates by reducing introductory sections, 90 more by incorporating the range maps, and 16 more by incorporating accidentals.

Birders curious to know how Kenn Kaufman came to write and assemble his new Kaufman Focus Guides: Birds of North America will want to read the following interview with journalist and birder Fred Bouchard. Kaufman was interviewed at Houghton Mifflin's Boston office, where he was visiting from his home in Arizona between legs of his book tour, TV spots, and avian excursions to work on the next volume in his Focus series. The following is the edited text of that interview.


FB: How did your earliest birding experiences form your viewpoints on the avian world, and how did they directly influence this book?

KK: My early birding experiences were the most important for the way this book took shape. When I started birding at six, I didn't know anyone else who was interested. I had no idea of how to go about it. I had no field guide, no binoculars. I became fascinated with birds, any birds, and would scatter breadcrumbs around the lawn and creep up to them to get better looks at the [house] sparrows and Starlings. I'd go to a little branch library [South Bend, Indiana] and sit on the floor and look and bird books to try to figure out what I'd seen. It was a long struggle for me to learn to identify any birds at all. We moved to Wichita, Kansas when I was nine and I continued to bird without binoculars. I bought a pair of $20 Sears binoculars when I was 10 and a half.

A minority of people who start birding are immediately surrounded by experts telling them what they're looking at, so they don't go through this lengthy stage of being a beginner.

When I started working on this book, I was thinking of the person who is in the same position I was in, of not knowing anyone to lean on for questions. So the book had to be self-contained.

FB: You've well documented your youthful fanaticism in Kingbird Highway (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), but was there a turning point in your becoming involved professionally in ornithology?

KK: From the time I was 9 or 10 I wanted to grow up and write bird books like Roger Tory Peterson. He was my hero from the time I read his first book: that was what I wanted to do. I always wanted to go on and work not so much in ornithology, but in interpreting birds and nature to the public. I was so totally focused, I quit high school to hitchhike around America and look at birds. It took a long time to where I could make a living at it, but never really considered doing anything else.

FB: Did you have concerns about how a photo guide would be received by a birding audience that generally favors painted guides?

KK: You're asking the question from the viewpoint of the hard-core serious birder, the upper 1% of the birdwatching public. I know that the most serious birders do prefer paintings over photos. The general public is more often comfortable with photo guides, even though they shouldn't be. We know that photo guides don't work because you can't compare one photo to another, and you can't trust what photos show you in terms of colors, sizes, markings or anything. But beginners gravitate toward books with photos.

FB: The Audubon and Stokes guides are hot sellers, right?

KK: Right, even though they can't be used for identification. So yes, I was aware of the distinction between the expert birders who favor the painted guides and the general public who like photo guides. But since I was going in a third direction, the real challenge I had was getting people to realize that this is something new, and in between.

FB: What was your modus operandi?

KK: This is not a photo guide, it's a different approach, and I explain that up-front. I was painting on the computer -- Adobe Photoshop, the industry standard -- using photos as a starting point. I changed the images in whatever way I felt was necessary: color, angle, posture, plumage (sleeking down head feathers if the bird was alarmed, moving out-of-place feathers). I got rid of shadows on the underparts and artificial highlights. I resized images so they were in relation to each other, then corrected color differences for those on the same plate. In some cases, I changed a bird's gender or turned it into another species! The White-collared Seedeaters were both mutations of the same photo.

FB: Why did you create a simple guide after you'd already written a cutting-edge advanced guide?

KK: I'd been thinking about how to do a book for people who were not experts for a long time, really since I was 11. In 1990 I had a conversation with Roger Peterson right after he'd finished the revision for his Western Guide. Roger was worrying that he'd put in more detail than he should have because of pressure from the expert birders. The experts who write the reviews want more detail, but the public using the guide don't want that much: they prefer a clear, direct approach. I'd just finished my advanced field guide and started thinking that we needed one for the beginner.

FB: How did the design for this guide crystallize for you?

KK: One idea was to divide the birds into groups. I'd watched people start at page one and go through the every single page looking for the right bird. So I started with a pictorial table of contents -- you don't have to know what a shorebird is to be sent to the right section.

FB: You stress logic over taxonomy in the ordering of the guide: raptors precede shorebirds, roadrunner shows up twice. What was your overall reasoning?

KK: Serious birders will never criticize you for putting a book in strict taxonomic order. I follow AOU order more or less: cormorants are up front, flycatchers in the middle, and finches at the end, but I shift it around to put similar birds together. This order is arbitrary but for ordinary mortals. Exhibit A is the American Coot. I've watched people struggle back and forth through the duck section looking for this duck that isn't there, so they give up. There's no reason why a bird that acts like a duck shouldn't be near the ducks, so I have a section called "Other Swimming Birds."

FB: Use of this book is clearly for quick and easy field use. To gain convenience, what compromises have you felt you had to make?

KK: It was certainly a challenge from the beginning. We knew it would be 384 pages (multiple of 32 in a folio) because we wanted to keep it under 400. We knew we'd keep the pages small to keep it affordable and a tidy package to carry around. We really had to cram everything in. There isn't a square inch of blank space; I have to autograph books on the inside front cover. I don't know about compromises. There isn't much detail on immature gulls, for example. I have taught workshops and I listen to the audiences. They don't pay much attention to immature gulls; they're still trying to figure out the adults! That goes for more experienced birders, too. I do give references for further study. Similarly, the book emphasizes male ducks, spring warblers, and other groups people really try to tell apart.

FB: Your text is very refreshing, like your comments on House Sparrows. It's surely geared to draw in a new audience to birds.

KK: My goal with this book is to get more people into birdwatching. You don't do this by criticizing the bird they see in their back yard. When I was a little kid, I was excited about House Sparrows, especially when I put up a bird-house and they nested in it! The same goes for Starlings and Crows.

FB: Just how tough was it gathering the photos?

KK: Rick and Nora Bowers were collaborators, as was my wife Lynn; they all deserve a lot of credit for the book. Rick and Nora are photographers and nearly half the photos in the book are theirs. I started by going through their photos and added a few of my own (not nearly as good.) They did the photo research, and gradually we had a widening network of contributors, over 80 in all. Some refused, saying they didn't want their photos altered, but an amazing majority signed a contract permitting me to do whatever I needed to do to their original images.

FB: Technologically, it's safe to say this guide couldn't have been done even a decade ago, right?

KK: Even when I first started with Adobe Photoshop in 1995, my old computer would take 20 minutes to save a retouch! The program has also improved greatly.

FB: Any species missed?

KK: I knew the AOU update would be out in July, 2000, so I contacted the people on the committee in advance, so we got the Gunnison Sage Grouse in. We didn't get in all the variables of Red Crossbill, but they haven't been split yet anyway.

FB: Are all the voice texts your own?

KK: I've been keeping notebooks and index cards on vocalizations for years.

FB: Any favorite specific plates/sections?

KK: I was very happy with the Martins and Swallows. The most difficult was the Storm-Petrel plate. People asked why I put them all on a two-page spread. Most people will never see one at all, and even if they do, they won't be able to identify them unless they're on a pelagic trip with experts who will point them out. Storm-Petrels are notoriously hard to photograph. On many, I painted a bird on top of a very fuzzy photograph.

FB: What do you think of Sibley's new book personally?

KK: I think it's excellent: David did a fantastic job. I've been looking forward to it for a long time, along with all the other keen birders I know. It's amazing how much information he was able to pack in there. I know people have been sniping at details here and there on the Internet, but they're not going to find much to argue about.

In a way, we're both going back to our roots. We both did the kind of book we'd have liked when we were kids. David's father was a noted ornithologist, and his big brother was a keen birder. He grew up surrounded by people who knew the birds, and he wanted to become an expert right away. Since I was in total isolation and didn't have the foggiest idea of what I was looking at, I guess I did the kind of book I wished I'd had at the start.

Roger Peterson had always been my hero, and his books weren't geared for advanced birders, either. His 1934 guide wasn't the most detailed book nor the one with the most beautiful paintings. It was just simple and easy to use. It didn't cause much excitement among those who were already birders at that point; they'd go to Chapman for the details. Roger could have done an advanced guide, but he left that to others, because he felt it was more important to be in touch with the general public.

So even though advanced, hard-core birders are going to be more excited about advanced guides, I think it' s important for someone to carry on the kind of work that Roger was doing.

FB: Are there any species in the book you have not seen?

KK: I have never seen a Whiskered Auklet.


Fred Bouchard (fbouchard@juno.com)
Fred is a journalist, tech writer, and avid birder. He writes for Ferris Reseach, Downbeat Magazine, Bossa, and other publications. He hosts Crosscurrents, a jazz/classical show in the Boston-area (2-4 pm, Thursdays on WMBR-FM 88.1, MIT Radio).

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Before & After
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