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Dan Koeppel – To See Every Bird on Earth

January 14, 2011

1. To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession by Dan Koeppel (2005)

Length: 278 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction; Biography/Memoir

Started: 30 December 2010
Finished: 01 January 2011

Where did it come from? My advisor’s bookshelves.
Why do I have it? I picked it up to look at the cover, and she said “You should read that, you’ll like it.”

To be a major
birder, all you need is time,
cash… and obsession.

Summary: Dan Koeppel’s father has seen over 7,000 species of birds. That’s impressive enough on its own, considering that there are about 10,000 bird species on the planet, but even more impressive is that there are less than a dozen other “Big Listers” that have attained those kinds of numbers. However, that kind of accomplishment is not without a price. In To See Every Bird on Earth, Koeppel traces the origins of his father’s birding, how it sprung from stifled childhood dreams and turned from a hobby into an obsession that consumed and overwhelmed everything else in his life, including his job, his marriage, and his family. In trying to understand his father’s birding, he also investigates the history of competitive birding, the current state of this unique and eccentric subculture, the methods and motivations of several other Big Listers, and the root of the desire that drives humans to attempt to count and categorize the natural world.

Review: Speaking from the point of view of a biologist who is not a birder – and while there is some overlap, being one does not require the other – it was eye-opening to read about the other side of things. I learned a lot of things about birding and birders that I didn’t know – most strikingly the fact that there are so few Big Listers. I also agree with Koeppel’s general thesis about the craze for birding (or similar pastimes) springing from a need to create a place of order for ourselves in a wide world that seems chaotic. So, viewing this book as a work of factual non-fiction, it was definitely a success: I was interested throughout, and I learned some new things, although I wish there had been more about the birds themselves.

Viewing this book as a biography/memoir, however, I’m not so sure. Koeppel states his theories about why his dad is a compulsive birder pretty early on, and then describes his dad’s life such that it supports those theories. However, he doesn’t really present any alternative explanations, and I was never entirely convinced, never sure that there wasn’t some piece to the puzzle that Koeppel was standing too close to see.

Speaking of standing too close, I also have to evaluate this book from a scientist’s perspective. Birding relies on several scientific principles, and while for the most part Koeppel does an okay job explaining them, there were a few places where I thought the science aspect of things could have used beefing up. For example, the definition of what is a “species” is critical to birders – for those with large lists, revisions of the taxonomy can gain or lose them tens if not hundreds of species at a time, which is critical in a game where numbers are the main thing that matter. Among biologists, species concepts are often hotly debated at extensive length; in TSEBoE, Koeppel dispatches with the issue in less than a paragraph. There are other instances throughout the book where a misplaced word or strange phrasing belied a similar lack of in-depth scientific understanding.

I don’t mean to sound overly down on this book. It’s highly likely that the amount of science Koeppel introduces is more than adequate for the lay reader, and I’m just being an egghead. Overall, I did enjoy reading it, I just think that it didn’t quite reach everything it was aiming for. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Worth reading for an interesting look into a subculture that most people probably know very little about. Also, the desire to list and organize things in one’s life should be highly relatable to those who spend hours poring over and maintaining their LibraryThing accounts. :)

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

As a note, Koeppel’s also guilty of one of my main non-fiction pet-peeves: defining the same term in two successive chapters (in this case, “monotypic genus”). To me, it always makes it seem like the book was cobbled together from previously published articles and not read through for cohesiveness carefully enough. So, attention journalists: if you’re writing a book, please actually write a book. We can tell when you cut corners.

Other Reviews: Chick with Books
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: My father and I were drinking champagne on a remote island in the Rio Negro, the dark river that flows into the Brazilian Amazon.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2011 7:51 am

    My dad has a moderate interest in birdwatching, and it was always something we enjoyed when we were kids. On road-trips he used to pull the car over and get out the bird book and binoculars and let us inspect the surrounding trees for birds we could recognize. I’m sad for the writer of this book that his father’s interest in birds alienated his family rather than bringing them close. :(

    • January 17, 2011 9:35 am

      Jenny – Koeppel tells similar stories about family road trips, except with the emphasis shifted so that the focus was on him seeing the birds, with the fact that the kids saw the birds as a secondary concern.

  2. January 14, 2011 10:07 am

    So, attention journalists: if you’re writing a book, please actually write a book. We can tell when you cut corners.

    Amen. Take the time to revise and make it cohesive (unless you’re upfront about it being a collection of previously published works)!

    • January 17, 2011 9:37 am

      Omni – I’ve got no problem with cannibalizing from stuff you’ve already written – my dissertation never would have gotten finished otherwise – but it really, really needs to be read through more than once. What really bothers me is when half of a book is a cohesive story and then half is crammed-together articles. One or the other, please!

  3. January 14, 2011 2:22 pm

    But if you do repeat it, repeat it continuously, that way it’ll be drummed into our subconscious (kidding).

    It does sound like a good read. I myself had zippo interest in birdwatching until one of the guest teachers at a knitting retreat at the Pt Pigeon Lighthouse took us on a nature walk. It was pretty fascinating.

    • January 17, 2011 9:38 am

      Carrie – Ooh, sounds like fun! (I’ve lead nature walks, and I always really enjoy it.) What all did you see?

  4. January 14, 2011 4:01 pm

    Hm, I do love a good memoir, but I’m not sure there’s enough to this one to hold my interest.

    • January 17, 2011 9:39 am

      bermudaonion – Well, there might be; memoirs have never been my genre of choice, so I’m probably judging it on a totally different set of standards than someone who loves the genre.

  5. January 15, 2011 1:54 am

    I might like this one. I love birds and while I’m a bird watcher, I’m not obsessed about lists. In fact, I’ve never counted how many different birds I’ve seen. When I see something unusual I do rush to look it up in my bird book and I take lots of pictures of birds, go on frequent bird walks and have feeders and nest boxes in my yard. So in that respect I guess I’m obsessed!

    • January 17, 2011 9:41 am

      Leslie – That makes you interested, not obsessed! I like birds too; I’ve got multiple bird field guides, I pay attention to the birds when I’m traveling, and I try to identify what I’m seeing… but I don’t go out of my way to see new birds, and I don’t keep a Life List, so I don’t really consider myself a birder.

      • January 17, 2011 11:04 am

        I don’t go on any special trips or tours to find birds but I like the organized local bird walks and the input from the experienced people. They have been a great help in learning to identify what I’m looking at. What I really enjoy is just watching and photographing the birds. To me they are such amazing creatures.

      • January 20, 2011 8:59 am

        They really are! And the more you learn about them the more amazing they become! (Which I suppose is true for most things, really.)

  6. February 26, 2011 2:44 am

    Hi Firefly .. got here via a blogger who found me! and mentioned the book, then googled it – and got here.

    Thanks looks like you have fun .. and I’ll be following along – cheers Hilary

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