What drives a man to travel to sixty countries and spend a fortune to count birds? And what if that man is your father?
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.
For some people, bird watching is a compulsion that can become more important than friends, family or career. Richard Koeppel is one of those obsessive birders, and in this candid book, his son shares his story, painting his father as a tragic figure who passionately wanted to become an ornithologist but became the doctor his parents wanted him to be instead. Not surprisingly, Richard's medical career never satisfied him, and he gave it up to become a "Big Lister," one of a group of highly competitive birders who travel the world making lists of their sightings. Over the years he spotted more than 7,000 different species, a number achieved by fewer than a dozen others. Nature writer Koeppel fleshes out his account of Richard's 50-year bird-watching odyssey with facts about this ritualized, expensive sport, including its history, the rules and technicalities of listing, the people and organizations devoted to making the lists, and questions of taxonomy. His hope, he writes, was to forge a closer relationship with his father and understand the "nearly unquenchable" drive that ruled Richard's life, ruined his marriage and made it impossible for him to be close to his children. But in the end, despite trekking alongside his father on birding expeditions, he still can't quite understand it. His book, then, is more poignant than revelatory. Agent, Laurie Liss. (June)
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April 24, 2006
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Excerpt from To See Every Bird on Earth by DAN KOEPPEL
Prologue 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. To see more than seven thousand birds is a massive undertaking. It requires extensive travel (only nine hundred species are found in the United States and Canada) to some of the planet?s most remote destinations. And it requires a specific mindset: singular, focused, and obsessed, often to the point of blotting out anything?family, career, other pastimes?that might slow the quest. For most Big Listers, that arduous and all-absorbing mission seems to be borne of being pursued by circumstance, ambition, or personal demons, coupled with a barely submerged understanding that the only way to outrun those pursuers is to chase after something else with equal determination. 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 Jau 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 live