To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession

by Dan Koeppel

Reviewed by Grant McCreary on September 23rd, 2008.

cover of To See Every Bird on Earth, by Dan Koeppel

Publisher: Plume

Date: May, 2005

Illustrations: none

Binding: paperback (hardcover also available)

Pages: 297

Size: 5 1/4″ x 8″

MSRP: $14.00

Listing and bird-chasing seems to be a popular topic among bird books these days. Most of them have been written by the participant themselves, such as Birding on Borrowed Time, The Big Twitch (Review), and Kingbird Highway. Others, The Big Year for example, are written by an uninvolved outsider. The subject matter here, a biography of a “Big Lister” and an investigation into his obsession with counting birds, is familiar. The point of view, however, is very different, since this book was written by the birder’s son.

Richard Koeppel is one of the relatively few birders to have seen over 7,000 species of birds. The process of building such a list, and the associated experiences and encounters, are of great interest to birders. Most books on this subject deal with these things. Although this book does include some of this information, it is not the focus. Rather, this book is essentially a son’s attempt to understand his father. As such, it concentrates on those things that influenced his father’s all-consuming passion: his early fascination with birds, his parents’ expectations, and his failed marriage. It is also highly autobiographical, as the author discusses his relationship with his dad.

In addition to the point of view, there is another major difference between this book and the other listing/chasing books. Some of the other books mentioned may be more entertaining (especially The Big Twitch and The Big Year), and Phoebe Snetsinger’s story in Birding on Borrowed Time is very inspiring. But none causes the reader to consider his or her own condition. As the author attempts to get to the root of his father’s obsession, the reader is implicitly encouraged to ponder their obsessions and the reasons they bird. At least I was, anyway, and I applaud the book for that.

Since his father is extremely obsessed with birds, a large part of the author’s attempt to reconnect with him necessarily dealt with birding, and more specifically, listing. Dan, of course, conducted extensive interviews with his father on the subject. But he also talked to other birders, tour operators, and guides. This background information made its way into his book. Thus, you will find here a good, but necessarily brief, introduction to the more competitive aspects of birding. The various types of lists, from the yard to entire world, and even rules for listing are discussed. This makes the book very accessible to non-birders.

The author confesses that he himself is not a birder, though he clearly learned much about it over the years from his father. It was interesting to get an outsider’s take on some of birding’s more outlandish pursuits. However, there are a few cases where the author’s lack of knowledge manifests itself in some small things that aren’t quite right. But these are either easily missed or forgiven; they do not detract from his story.

Recommendation

Birds play a prominent role in this book, but it is really more about the father-son relationship between the author and his listing-obsessed dad. This focus, and the great lengths taken to explain much about birding and listing, perhaps makes this one of the best “bird books” for non-birders. However, it is written well enough to keep the interest of even the most bird-obsessed of readers (of which I’m probably one).

Category: Biographies

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