New field guide is for the birds

  • Sharon Wootton / Outbound Columnist
  • Saturday, October 14, 2000 9:00pm
  • Life

The present meets the past in cKenn Kaufman’s "The Birds of North America" ($20, Houghton Mifflin).

Kaufman, who left school at age 16 to break the record for species seen in North America in a year (he saw 666 or 671, depending on how you count it), has written a book that’s billed as the most revolutionary since Roger Tory Peterson’s "Field Guide to Birds" in 1934.

"He was my hero, starting when I was 6 years old. We have the same publisher," Kaufman said of Peterson.

But Kaufman is not trying to replace Peterson’s classic. In some ways he’s using a similar simple approach to bird identification.

It’s the method of illustration that’s "revolutionary," Kaufman said. "There’s always been a debate whether field guide illustrations should be paintings or photographs. They both have their drawbacks.

"Even the best artist can’t always get the subtleties that make birds distinctive. If it’s a steller’s jay, if it’s black and blue and has a crest, the picture doesn’t have to be very good.

"But if it needs the bird’s expression on its face to make it distinctive, the photographs can get that well but the colors depend on much more, such as lighting conditions and the kind of film being used."

Kaufman’s alternative has been to scan in photographs and, with a little computer manipulation, create the bird that he thinks you are most likely to see.

"I decided a long time ago that the best way was to use photographs but to edit them somehow.

"When I was first thinking that, there was no real way to do that. … The development of computer programs for digital editing of images gradually made it so that I could do what I had thought about (since age 11)."

Kaufman’s book is going against the current trend of more and more detail that complicates the guides.

Peterson’s and Kaufman’s guides are more along the lines of birding for the masses.

"The last time Roger revised his Western field guide was in 1990, and he said he had put in more detail than he should have but he was forced into it by ‘serious’ birders."

Kaufman decided to ignore the experts and hardcore birders.

"I asked, ‘What does a person need if they’re just picking up this book? What do they need to identify birds?’ "

The answer meant leaving out extremely rare visitors to North America, especially if they showed up only on the outer Aleutian Islands every 10 years.

Kaufman has a lifetime of birding to draw upon. By 16, he was 10 years into serious bird-watching.

"Early on I was really fascinated about picture books, about natural phenomena, comets and dinosaurs and tigers. I’d look around and we didn’t have any of those things. I hoped to see a volcano erupt down the block.

"Before that birds were beneath my notice. Finally I started looking and they turned out to be interesting. Then I got caught up in the identification challenge."

He’s an expert who can still sympathize with the beginner.

"The Stokes have done a number of excellent books. They do a lot to bring beginners into bird-watching. But I don’t think their field guide was very effective because it was the old-style photographic guide."

A late afternoon photo of a ruddy duck "makes them look like richly colored birds, which they’re not. That’s the sort of thing you can fix digitally," Kaufman said.

"Although I admire what Don and Lillian have done with a lot of books and television programs, I don’t think their field guide is particularly usable."

National Geographic’s book? "The third edition last year was even less beginner-friendly then the previous one."

Casual birders are important because grass-roots support is needed for wildlife conservation.

"I can take all the serious birders and professional ornithologists and I wouldn’t have enough people to elect the mayor of a decent-sized city let alone affect policy on habitat," he said.

"It’s important to have a broad number of people to care about nature, to think it’s worth the effort and expense to protect it.

"People are busy. There aren’t that many to take the time to become an expert birder … but millions of people enjoy going out occasionally.

"My purpose is to make it easy to take the first step … to see a reason to keep endangered species from going over the brink."

Kaufman speaks on "The Secret Life of Birds and Birders" at 7 p.m. Oct. 23 at Kane Hall Room 120 on the University of Washington campus.

"As a teaser, say that I intend to imitate the courtship displays of several kinds of birds," he said with a laugh.

Tickets are $15, and may be purchased from the Pilchuck Audubon Society, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 425-252-0926.

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