Every spring, billions of small migratory birds travel thousands of miles across North America, flying from Central and South America to summer homes as far away as Alaska. Then, weeks later, they turn around and head back South. This chaotic spectacle first captivated Kenn Kaufman as a teenager, when he hitchhiked across America on a yearlong bird-watching trek. Today, he’s one of the most respected naturalists in the country. He joins Kojo to discuss the frenzy and beauty of spring bird migrations.


  • Kenn Kaufman Naturalist and Writer; Author of "Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding" and "Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder" (Houghton Mifflin)


  • 13:06:47

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's a chaotic spectacle playing out in the skies above. Every spring, billions of small birds travel thousands of miles across North America migrating from places like Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela, briefly laying over in our backyards, parks and wilderness areas then continuing on to summer homes as far north as Alaska. Then, weeks later, they turn around and head back south.

  • 13:07:30

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe frenzy and beauty of this massive migration first captivated Kenn Kaufman as a teenager when he hitchhiked 80,000 miles across America on a year-long bird-watching trek. Today, he's one of the most respected bird experts in the country. He joins us in studio. Kenn Kaufman is a naturalist and writer, author of "Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding" and "Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder." Kenn Kaufman, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:02

    MR. KENN KAUFMANOh, thanks, Kojo. I'm glad to be here.

  • 13:08:04

    NNAMDIWe know we have a lot of bird lovers and watchers in this area so we're inviting your calls right now, 800-433-8850. Where do you go to appreciate nature and wildlife, 800-433-8850? Kenn Kaufman, is it possible to make sense of the spring migration every year? Backyards, parks around Washington and across the country play temporary host to billions of transnational visitors. On any given day, we might be hosting guests from Venezuela, my own native Guyana or Brazil.

  • 13:08:36

    NNAMDIIt's easy to lose sight of how extraordinary seasonal bird migration is, a mind bogglingly complex pattern of species following unique flight paths. Is it possible to make sense of all of this, the spring or fall migration? What do we know and what don't we know about this apparent chaos?

  • 13:08:55

    KAUFMANWell, it isn't possible to make sense of it in any sort of linear narrative and so whenever I start to talk about it, I immediately get into trouble. It's such a fascinating subject that we sort of push on through. Just astounding numbers of birds, as you said, traveling amazing distances. It's beyond the imagination, but it's happening all around us twice a year.

  • 13:09:17

    NNAMDIWhat is happening around us twice a year? They're going places, coming back from places.

  • 13:09:23

    KAUFMANThat's right. I mean, no two kinds of birds in the world have exactly the same distribution. You're talking about 10,000 different species of birds around the world and no two of them with exactly the same niche. Some of them are permanent residents. There are some birds that are here year round. There are Carolina Chickadees in the parks here. I saw Carolina Chickadees this morning. And they won't travel more than a couple of miles in their whole lives.

  • 13:09:46

    KAUFMANBut then there are other birds that there're areas that they will go to to breed in summer to raise their young where the resources are great for them, but they can't survive through the winter there. So they'll travel to someplace else, often in the tropics.

  • 13:10:01

    NNAMDIThere is something awe-inspiring about a tiny being that weighs less than an ounce undertaking a journey that can exceed thousands and thousands of miles. Give us a sense of scale here of the feat that these birds are pulling off.

  • 13:10:21

    KAUFMANPutting it into human terms, I mean, if we could migrate to the moon and back that might be a good comparison. But you take something like one of these little warblers that when it's fully fattened up and ready to travel -- I mean, they fatten up before they go someplace because that's fuel for them, but still they'll be weighing less than an ounce. And some of them will travel 4,000 miles. It's extraordinary.

  • 13:10:46

    KAUFMANOne of the long flights that the little black warbler, one of my favorites, makes a long overwater flight in fall. In spring, it just hops from island to island so it's only flying, you know, a few hundred miles at a time. But in fall, it makes a flight of thousands of miles. It's been calculated that if it were burning gasoline, it would be getting something like 720,000 miles to the gallon.

  • 13:11:13

    NNAMDII have spent way too much of my morning looking at the aforementioned warbler.

  • 13:11:19

    KAUFMANSorry about that.

  • 13:11:20

    NNAMDIOh, that's all right. You got me hooked. It's fascinating because it's found in my own native country Guyana and some of them end up migrating as far away as Alaska. Every May, local birding enthusiasts and amateur scientists conduct an annual bird count in communities across our region documenting the migratory and local bird life. Today, you conducted your own informal survey in Rock Creek Park right here. What did you see and hear?

  • 13:11:49

    KAUFMANRight. Well, it was -- I was actually going to a meeting at the science building at the National Zoo. It's where I had to sit inside sort of discussing policies for the whole morning. But on the way I walked for 15 minutes through the park and had a number of birds who would be here year around like the Carolina Chickadees that I mentioned, but then also Red Eyed Vireo, which would've spent the winter in South America, Eastern Wood-Pewee which probably would've spent the winter in South America, Chimney Swifts which spent the winter in South America, just all these international travelers that just arrived within the last few weeks.

  • 13:12:27

    NNAMDII have to go through Rock Creek Park -- I don't have to -- I go through Rock Creek Park every day on my way to and from work. It's, for years, been my favorite part of the city. We're talking with Kenn Kaufman. He is a naturalist and writer, author of "Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding" and "Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder."

  • 13:12:44

    NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you seen something in your backyard that surprised or excited you? Do you have a seasonal visitor you look forward to? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send us an email to kojo@wamu.org or a Tweet at kojoshow. When you were 16 years old, you dropped out of school and hitchhiked across America logging over 80,000 miles in one year and trying to break the record for most species seen in the continental United States in a year.

  • 13:13:20

    NNAMDIWe'll get to what you actually saw shortly, but first I gotta ask, what did your parents think about this project? After all, you were only 16.

  • 13:13:30

    KAUFMANWell, my parents were the most unusual people I'm going to meet in my life. They were not specifically interested in birds at all, but they were very supportive of anything that they thought was educational. And by the time I was 16, I was a pretty good student. I had good grades, but I knew a lot about birds. And I had learned that on my own, not out of school. So they said -- when I took off and started traveling around, they said, well, you know, just stay in touch with us. I think they assumed that I was going...

  • 13:13:58

    NNAMDIOh no, they said two other very important words, no hitchhiking.

  • 13:14:04

    KAUFMANWell, yes, there was that, yeah. But there were so many of these places that I wanted to go where there was no public transportation. You know, you can take a bus from Kansas out to Tucson, Arizona, but there isn't a bus going down to the middle of California Gulch. So I would start walking and if someone wanted to stop and give me a ride, I mean, who was I to turn it down?

  • 13:14:26

    NNAMDIYes, he did hitchhike. The saga you undertook to see as many species as you could has a name. It's called a Big Year, when someone spends a whole year trying to document as many species as possible across the United States. You managed more than 660. That's an amazing accomplishment. But the idea of competitive birding is I guess somewhat absurd on the face of it, but some people are motivated by maintaining lists and striking off names, huh?

  • 13:14:55

    KAUFMANWell, it is absurd and I would say that competitive bird watching is almost as absurd as something like competitive golf.

  • 13:15:03


  • 13:15:03

    KAUFMANI mean, just imagine walking around in some open park and knocking a little ball into a hole and competing with somebody like that.

  • 13:15:10

    NNAMDIA long walk sport (unintelligible)

  • 13:15:12

    KAUFMANThat's right, exactly. But it's -- yeah, it's a game and the actual list totals that people come up with on a Big Year don't really mean anything at all. But it reflects a kind of knowledge that actually relates to things in the real world so that I think has some value.

  • 13:15:29

    NNAMDIAnd you say the key to being a great bird watcher is something different. You say the key is having fun.

  • 13:15:36

    KAUFMANExactly, yeah. I mean, that's -- I've been saying that for years that -- I mean, birding is something that we do for enjoyment. So if someone enjoys it they're a good birder. It doesn't matter how many species they've seen or how many they can recognize on sight. It's just a matter of if they're enjoying it then they're doing it right.

  • 13:15:55

    NNAMDIAnd have you been having fun with this from the time you were a kid, if by the age of 16 you had accumulated all of this knowledge without help from your school teachers or necessarily your parents? Is this something that you started out on, this journey, simply because you had fun doing it?

  • 13:16:11

    KAUFMANOh, yeah. Yeah, exactly. And everybody I know who's into birding has fun doing it. And, you know, we don't just look at birds. I mean, don't tell anybody this but I will go out and look at other things as well. I'll look at reptiles and butterflies and seashells. It's all -- there's so much diversity out there that it's always fascinating. But I keep coming back to birds because they're just so intensely alive. To me they just represent what it means to be really fully alive and fully engaged.

  • 13:16:43

    NNAMDIA couple of years ago, "The Big Year" got the Hollywood treatment with a film starring Steve Martin and Jack Black. What did you think about that movie?

  • 13:16:50

    KAUFMANWell, we were all very apprehensive when the film was being made. We wondered, you know, how -- what is this going to be like? It wasn't nearly as bad as we though it might've been. We were actually pretty happy with the way it turned out. There were a lot of inaccuracies on the birds, but it didn't really matter because you had these top Hollywood stars playing the parts of birders and taking it seriously. And so we thought it was great.

  • 13:17:16

    NNAMDIKenn Kaufman is our guest. He's a naturalist and writer. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you seen any interesting birds recently? Give us a call. Here is Jim in Gaithersburg, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:17:32

    JIMThanks for taking my call, Kojo. I enjoy your show very much.

  • 13:17:37

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 13:17:37

    JIMI just wanted to ask Mr. Kaufman what kind of binoculars he would recommend for a novice bird watcher.

  • 13:17:49

    KAUFMANWell, that's a loaded question, Jim. I appreciate it. The -- I mean, binoculars, if you can spend $3,000, anything that you get at that price range is going to be great. Most people don't want to start at that level so you have to approach it more carefully. But I would say the best thing to do if you can is to go to some kind of store where you can compare lots of different binoculars, some sort of Audubon shop or a wild bird shop where you can look at different brands and try them out and see what works best for you and talk to someone experienced there.

  • 13:18:23

    NNAMDIIn the beginning of this book, it goes through what these binoculars do and what they are. What's the difference between portal and roof binoculars?

  • 13:18:32

    KAUFMANOh, it's just a structural thing with the shape of the prism inside. And either one will work well so it comes down to a matter of preference. I unfortunately -- you know, I've got like six or seven different pairs of binoculars at this point.

  • 13:18:50

    NNAMDIShould one -- is there anything that people should watch out for, binoculars that may be, I guess, deceptively inexpensive?

  • 13:18:59

    KAUFMANYeah, I mean, if it comes wrapped in plastic you don't want those. If the -- the tiny micro binoculars are often more trouble than they're worth so it's good to get the full-sized ones rather than the really micro compact ones.

  • 13:19:12

    NNAMDIJim, thank you for your call and good luck to you.

  • 13:19:14

    JIMThank you.

  • 13:19:15

    NNAMDIOn to Elizabeth in Alexandria, Va. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:19:20

    ELIZABETHGood afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you so much for taking my call. I have two questions now. The first one, I have a birdfeeder in my backyard and it's wonderful. I've become a bird watcher the last few years. I have the book identification. But my question is I'm getting hawks about once a month that come and absolutely destroy my Mourning Doves. And I want to know how to avoid that. My second question, if you please, is you mentioned the butterflies. I had a Luna Moth in my yard twice last year, very large. And I was just wondering, is this unusual? Thank you for taking the questions.

  • 13:19:58

    KAUFMANOh, okay. Well, Elizabeth, in terms of the hawks coming through, there isn't really much that you can do about that. They're -- it's a part of nature. We sort of have to accept the fact that the hawks are out there and they're keeping the Mourning Doves on their toes. The Mourning Doves are swift and alert and, you know, good survivors. Partly because they have this kind of pressure that forces them to pay attention.

  • 13:20:28

    KAUFMANAnd I'm sorry if that sounds sort of harsh, but we...

  • 13:20:33

    NNAMDIIt is what it is, I guess.

  • 13:20:35

    KAUFMANYeah, I mean, it is a part of nature and it's something that goes with anyplace where Mourning Doves are feeding. Whether they're at a feeder or just out in the wild, those hawks are going to come around.

  • 13:20:44

    NNAMDIWhat was the second part of your question, Elizabeth?

  • 13:20:47

    ELIZABETHI saw a Luna Moth last year. I take the month of May and I go down to North Carolina to the Outer Banks. And there was a Luna Moth that was on my dog leash that I'd left out overnight. It was about the size of maybe 8" diameter. When I came back to Alexandria in June, there was another Luna Moth on my flag outside my yard and that was a good over 8" diameter. And I was just wondering, how rare is this Luna Moth?

  • 13:21:16

    KAUFMANOh, Luna Moths are wonderful. They're not particularly rare, but the adults only live for a few days. You know, they develop for a whole year as caterpillars but then the adult has no -- they have no mouth parts. They can't feed as adults so they only live for a very short time as adults. So it's always a treat to actually see one.

  • 13:21:36

    NNAMDIAnd you've written a Kaufman guide on insects, too, haven't you?

  • 13:21:39

    KAUFMANThat's right, yeah. Insects are a big side interest of mine and especially moths. There are more than 10,000 kinds of moths just in the United States so just an incredible variety out there.

  • 13:21:51

    NNAMDIThat's something you might want to check on, Elizabeth, the Kaufman guide on insects. Thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, if you've called, already stay on the line. If the lines are busy, because they're filling up fast, you can go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Have you seen something in your backyard that surprised or excited you, as was the case with Elizabeth? You can call us, 800-433-8850 or send email to kojo@wamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:24:07

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Kenn Kaufman. He's a naturalist and writer, author of "Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding," author of "Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder." If you'd like to get in touch with us the phone lines are busy. You can send us an email to kojo@wamu.org if you'd like to join the conversation. We move on now to Adam in Washington, D.C. Adam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:24:34

    ADAMHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 13:24:36

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 13:24:37

    ADAMI have a quick question just about bird identification. We just bought a birdfeeder and my daughters and I have just gotten really into identifying every bird that comes in and (unintelligible) . So my question is, two of the birds that we've seen, I just want to make sure that they might be the right ones we've identified them correctly. We think we've seen a Gray Catbird and a Brown-headed Cowbird. And I just want to know if it was possible that that's in fact what we have been seeing.

  • 13:25:05

    KAUFMANYeah, absolutely. Gray Catbirds are -- they're migratory so they're only around here for the warmer months, but they're fairly common in the Washington area through the summer. And they'll come to feeders for some things like suet or grape jelly, if you happen to have grape jelly out. And Brown-headed Cowbirds are also in the area. At this time of year, they're sort of broken up into, you know, small groups and so on. But in winter, they'll be in flocks. But, yeah, you're probably correct on both of those.

  • 13:25:36

    NNAMDIAnd, Adam, I gotta tell you that one of the things I learned from reading this book is that from an outsider novice perspective, the world of birds can be incredibly intimidating, so many species, so many colors. In the "Kaufman Field Guide," you provided some interesting tips or frameworks for simplifying the process. I always thought I had to try to identify birds by their colors, but one of the tips you gave is to pay attention first and foremost to the shape of the bird, not the colors. Correct?

  • 13:26:03

    KAUFMANYeah, absolutely because their colors will change with the season. But the shape of the bird is really distinctive and with enough experience, you can recognize almost all the birds just by their silhouettes.

  • 13:26:15


  • 13:26:15

    ADAMOh, very cool.

  • 13:26:16

    NNAMDIAdam, what did you say?

  • 13:26:18

    ADAMI just said very cool. Thank you very much for the input.

  • 13:26:19

    NNAMDIYeah, very cool indeed. Thank you very much. You, too, can call us, 800-433-8850. Here's Kim in Reston, Va. Kim, your turn.

  • 13:26:29

    KIMHi, thank you for taking my call. I live on a lake here in Reston Lake. And a couple of weeks ago I saw this bird. And I saw it again about three days later. I've never seen it before. It took me a long time to figure out what it was. And I can't remember the name of it but what I remember in reading about it is that in China, they use these birds to fish and they catch the fish and they'll bring them in.

  • 13:26:53

    KIMAnd I was just wondering -- I've never seen this bird before and I was wondering, is this like a -- you know, a migratory pattern or did it get off track or, you know, should I expect to see it again or what? It's just fascinating.

  • 13:27:04

    KAUFMANYeah, the bird that you saw was a Cormorant and it would've been the double crested Cormorant. And in the Far East, they use them for fishing because Cormorants are very good at catching fish underwater. But they'll put a collar around the base of the Cormorant's neck so it can't swallow. And it goes and catches all these fish. You know, they never seem to learn. They just keep doing it. And they'll come back and their masters will take the fish away from them. And eventually they take the collar off so the Cormorant can go ahead and feed itself.

  • 13:27:33

    KAUFMANBut, yeah, double crested Cormorants come through here and they'll stop off on small lakes. You can find them some places like out on Chesapeake Bay in large numbers. But even on small ponds and rivers way in the interior, you'll see a few of the Cormorants.

  • 13:27:49

    NNAMDIYou've spent quite a bit of time in China watching birds, have you not?

  • 13:27:54

    KAUFMANYes, I have. I went to (word?) on the coast of China to watch the migration there.

  • 13:28:00

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kim. Been to a lot of places. Four decades ago, you were in the grip of birding, oh, wanderlust, can we call it? But today you're more sedentary, operating from a unique position in Northwestern Ohio allowing this chaos and confusion to like come to you. How does the perspective compare?

  • 13:28:22

    KAUFMANWell, I enjoy both. I mean, I really like to travel and will still go and travel to various places. My wife Kimberly is the executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory up there in Ohio where we live. And so they do a lot of research on migration. And during the peak of migration we have to be there but at other times a year we like to travel to other places. But it's so great to be in a spot where it's a real migration hotspot because where we are on the shore of Lake Erie we have these little birds just gathering by the hundreds of thousands at the peak of migration.

  • 13:28:56

    NNAMDIWhat's the name of the spot?

  • 13:28:58

    KAUFMANThe area -- it's the area centered on Magee Marsh and Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge on the south shore of Lake Erie. And it's the Black Swamp Bird Observatory that does the studies on that area.

  • 13:29:13

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones now. Here is Glen in Arlington, Va. Glen, your turn.

  • 13:29:19

    GLENThank you so much for taking my call. I really enjoy your show. And I'm thrilled that you're talking about birding. I just got back from a three-day vacation from Lake Moomaw in Virginia. Do you know where that is?

  • 13:29:32

    NNAMDILake Moomaw?

  • 13:29:33

    GLENIt's near -- it's right past Warm Springs where the homestead is and it's a great place for families to camp. And while we were there we heard and saw loons. And at night we heard whippoorwills, which, you know, that was a thrill for me. Yeah, so I wanted to put that out there that, you know, those that are local and want to go to a great spot to see some, you know, birds that don't normally hang out in this area. Loons and whippoorwills are, you know, very, very -- there are a lot of them over there in Warm Springs and Lake Moomaw.

  • 13:30:14

    NNAMDIIt's near the West Virginia border, correct?

  • 13:30:16

    GLENIt is. It's like six miles from the West Virginia border. And it's a huge lake. It's got I think 40 miles of bordering on the lake. And all along is camping. And of course there are other things to say of course like frogs and lizards and snakes and all kinds of things. But it's a wonderful place just to go and find all kinds of species of birds that -- most particularly, my big thrill was to hear the loon and just see the loon and to hear the whippoorwill. I've never seen a whippoorwill, I've just heard a whippoorwill.

  • 13:30:51

    NNAMDIThat's about -- what about a four-and-a-half hour drive from here, Glen?

  • 13:30:54

    GLENIt is, it is. And it's well worth it, well worth it.

  • 13:30:58

    NNAMDIAnyplace closer than that that you might be able to see some of the same things, Kenn Kaufman?

  • 13:31:02

    KAUFMANI don't have that much local knowledge. The loons come through. You can see them actually in the immediate Washington area. But it sounds like at this lake they're gathering in late spring and actually calling, which it's a wonderful wild sound. I mean, you hear -- like in the Tarzan movies you hear the sounds of loons in the background because it sounds like a jungle bird even though it's not.

  • 13:31:26

    KAUFMANFor whippoorwills, whippoorwills are -- they're night birds and members of the nightjar family. They used to be much more common than they are now. They're becoming scarce unfortunately, so it's great to hear about a place where they're still present in numbers.

  • 13:31:41

    NNAMDIGlen, thank you very much for your call. Your home is known as a great place to see warblers, as many as 30 different warblers, including very rare at-risk species. Why do you love warblers so?

  • 13:31:55

    KAUFMANOh, the warblers -- warblers are probably the birds that separate the bird watchers from the non-bird watchers most strongly because they're tiny birds. They're very active. They're usually hiding behind leaves, but they're also quite colorful and they have all these different species. And they're migratory so you really have to make an effort to go and see them. And so the average person has probably never even heard of a warbler and never seen one. But the serious birders spend a lot of our time and energy trying to find warblers and look at them.

  • 13:32:26

    KAUFMANSo they're like -- once you get into birds -- I know a lot of people who are warbler addicts.

  • 13:32:34

    NNAMDIWell, I got a -- I think Bob in Boonsboro, Md. may have a warbler story for us. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:32:42

    BOBOh, thanks for taking my call. And I feel lucky to talk to Kenn. I bird watched with you at Crane Creek last year. We spotted a mourning warbler together. But the story I got is about two-and-a-half weeks ago I had some leftover bluebird boxes so I -- my wife said, why don't you put them over by the C&O Canal, see if we get any prothonotaries in them.

  • 13:33:10

    BOBSo we went -- we walked along the canal until we heard some prothonotaries. And I went over and I put the box up in the canal. There's a little bit of water in the canal, but there's not a lot, just in a few spots. And I put it in a piece of conduit which is real -- so something couldn't crawl up it. You know, it's a -- and within less than two minutes, a male prothonotary landed on it. And the next day, the female spent the entire day building a nest. And we've been lucky enough to watch them feeding the guys. You know, and they're not out of the box yet, but they're getting close. And...

  • 13:33:52

    NNAMDILucky guy, huh.

  • 13:33:53

    BOB...I thought by introducing something new into the environment, they'd be afraid of it. But, I mean, it was unbelievable. We've stuck it in the ground and I spun around and there's a male prothonotary sitting on the lip of the hole.

  • 13:34:07


  • 13:34:08

    NNAMDIHe means warblers when he says...

  • 13:34:09

    KAUFMANYeah, that is wonderful. prothonotary warbler, it's a brilliant, brilliant golden bird. It's one of the warblers, but it's one -- it's the only one in the eastern United States that actually will nest in holes, nest in cavities. So it's the only one that will use birdhouses. So it's a really special bird. And the fact that you would put up a birdhouse and the prothonotary warblers would move in immediately, that's fabulous.

  • 13:34:35

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Bob, you lucky man, you.

  • 13:34:37

    BOBYeah, thank you.

  • 13:34:39

    NNAMDIHere now we move on to another Bob. This one in Owings Mills, Md. Bob, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:34:48

    BOBYeah, when I was a kid in the late '60s, we always had birdfeeders at our house growing up in the Potomac area. And we had one year where a whole flock of evening grosbeaks came to the feeder and were there for at least a week. And then it happened a second season in a row and then I haven't seen them ever since anywhere anyplace. And I wondered where do you go to see evening grosbeaks? How common or uncommon are they, et cetera?

  • 13:35:19

    KAUFMANYeah, that's an interesting situation with the evening grosbeaks. They used to be much more common in the east than they are now. It was originally a western bird. They expanded eastward, became very common in the east a little over a century ago. And stayed very common through like the 1980s. And their numbers have really dropped off again now so we see them in only small numbers now.

  • 13:35:43

    KAUFMANIt's still pretty common in the northwest. There are places you can go in the northern Rockies where there are a lot of evening grosbeaks. But it has become a scarce bird in most of the eastern United States.

  • 13:35:55

    NNAMDIBob, thank you very much for your call.

  • 13:35:57

    BOBThank you.

  • 13:35:58

    NNAMDIThe traditional tools of birders are binoculars and dog-eared guide book, pencil, notepad. But today we live in the era of the Smartphone. And this technology is changing the way you collect information and look up sights and sounds. What technology do you use when you go out into the wilderness?

  • 13:36:16

    KAUFMANWell, I'm quick to adopt technology if it makes something easier. And I -- well, there's this program called ebird. It's a national or now worldwide database of bird records. And it's giving us an ability to track the migrations of birds in a way that we were never able to before because they're hundreds of thousands of birdwatchers now all over the world who contribute data to this

  • 13:36:42

    KAUFMANAnd I contribute data to it now through -- I used to have to go home and actually enter it through my computer. But now I've got this app called bird log on my phone. And I can just -- as I'm out like this morning walking through Rock Creek Park, I was entering the birds directly into the phone as I was seeing or hearing them. And so they're already -- but at the -- I hit the end and press submit and it's already up on the database at ebird.

  • 13:37:10

    NNAMDII heard you're also looking at weather apps too, huh?

  • 13:37:12

    KAUFMANOh, yeah. When you're interested in migration -- I mean, all the birders I know who are interested in migration are just total weather junkies. And we're just constantly looking to see what's happening with weather fronts and what direction is the wind going. So I've got several different weather apps that I'm looking at constantly.

  • 13:37:30

    NNAMDIWell, I'd like to read two emails -- this may take a second or a moment or two -- on opposite sides, if you will, on the app issue. First, from Rachel in Washington, D.C. "I'm an avid birder. I know you'll be talking about the benefit of apps and mobile devices. I want to speak out against apps for two reasons. First, if you're observing birds, you need to be observing birds, not shuffling through an electronic photo library or looking down at a guide book for that matter. You get better field notes if you're really giving the bird a good look and listen.

  • 13:38:02

    NNAMDII'm not a trained artist, but I've begun taking a sketchbook and pencil into the field. I was able to observe and draw a barred owl for an hour-and-a-half on the C & O canal near Fletcher's Boathouse two weeks ago. It was a real gift to be able to observe so close and so long. Second, birdsong apps can distort the volume of the song so that you can't tell the difference between a goldfinch and a mockingbird making the same sound, where an experienced birder would never confuse the two. Electronic devices can be a great tool, but I would discourage people from taking them into the field.

  • 13:38:36

    NNAMDIMy life bird this year was a northern water thrush at River Bend Park in Great Falls, Va. on May 13th." Well, I'll ask you to respond to the emails one at a time. What do you say to that?

  • 13:38:46

    KAUFMANOkay. Well, I would say I totally agree with Rachel. I don't actually use apps for trying to identify birds in the field. And sketching is really a valuable activity for anyone. I mean, I do a lot of photography, but I also do sketching. When I go to a new area and I'm seeing new birds for the first time, I like to sketch them because drawing forces you to see. It forces you to see things that you wouldn't otherwise. So I totally agree with the value of carrying a notebook and pencil and writing things down and doing sketches.

  • 13:39:22

    KAUFMANAnd I also agree that apps for bird songs often reproduce the sounds poorly. And so, again, I'm using the apps more for looking up weather information and for entering my sightings into the database and not for looking up things about the birds while I'm out in the field.

  • 13:39:44

    NNAMDIWhich is a hint of what you might be able to advise Amelia about. She says, "As a lifelong birder, my grandmother taught me early. I was thrilled this winter to hear loons calling at the mouth of the South River on the Chesapeake Bay. I never realized they spent time in this area. My question, any recommendations for birding apps? Every time I go to choose one, I get overwhelmed by all the choices."

  • 13:40:08

    KAUFMANRight. Well, I...

  • 13:40:10

    NNAMDIWhat you use.

  • 13:40:13

    KAUFMANI would agree. I mean, I'm partial to Bird's Eye, which is a bird finding app, because it will tell you like you could look up local hot spots to go look for birds, but it's not so much for identifying them. The apps for identifying birds keep changing and updating, and so anything that I recommended today would be obsolete by next week.

  • 13:40:40

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call, but the lines are filled right now. So if you'd like to join the conversation with Kenn Kaufman, go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send us email to kojo@wamu.org, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:42:44

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Kenn Kaufman. He is a naturalist and writer, author of "Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding," and "King Bird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder." We are inviting you to join the conversation by going to our website, kojoshow.org. Kenn Kaufman, birds serve as an interesting link between different corners of the world, connecting what is happening in a place like Brazil to Washington D.C. One of the more interesting links involves one of our favorite beverages, coffee. Explain how coffee consumption habits can influence global bird populations.

  • 13:43:19

    KAUFMANIt's really an interesting link, and it's something that a lot of people are not aware of. But our friends from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center have been studying this. The way coffee was traditionally grown was in the shade of the forest. It's an understory shrub, and so it grew well in the shade of native trees. So initially when coffee was introduced into the new world, it was just people would clear out some of the understory in the forest and plant coffee there, and it was a habitat that was almost as good for birds as just the undisturbed forest.

  • 13:43:53

    KAUFMANStarting in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of areas in Central America, Northern and South America were converted to sun coffee, just a different variety where they completely clear off all the trees and just plant the coffee bushes in rows out in the sun. And that works find if you have a large operation, but it takes a lot of chemicals to keep them going, a lot of fertilizers and pesticides and so on. So it's not nearly as healthy for the people who work there, and it doesn't support any bird populations at all.

  • 13:44:27

    NNAMDIWhen -- go ahead, please.

  • 13:44:29

    KAUFMANJust so the migratory birds, a lot of them go to the tropics. The birds that we enjoy here in the Washington area in summer may be down in Central America for the winter and they'll do really well on these shade coffee plantations, but if the coffee is grown in the sun, you know, that's just basically a loss. It's like a parking lot for birds.

  • 13:44:51

    NNAMDIHow can we change our coffee consumption habits so as to change that?

  • 13:44:56

    KAUFMANWell, it's possible to get bird-friendly coffee. Actually, the Smithsonian -- the SMBC, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has a certification process where they'll certify coffee as bird friendly, and you have to look around for it. It's not just like in every grocery store, but if you search on bird-friendly coffee, there are a lot of different companies that provide it, and if you drink that, you're supporting bird conservation.

  • 13:45:25

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Joan in Washington D.C. Joan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:45:32

    JOANOh, good afternoon. I live near the Observatory area in Washington, and for three years in a row I saw what I believed to be a Northern Harrier during the winter only for about a month. And it first of all used to sit in my back garden on my bench, but then the following years it came and would sit for hours in a huge tree about 50 feet high across the street which has not been cut. Where did this come from, or why hasn't it returned at all?

  • 13:46:06

    KAUFMANWell, those are challenging questions. Northern Harriers ordinarily are in relatively open country. You get some individuals that will stick around the edges of wood lots, but if the, you know, if you had one individual that was coming back and enjoyed that area, if it moved onto a different spot you might not see it that habitat again.

  • 13:46:32

    JOANGreat Falls or Virginia where I go very regularly in the wintertime, and I've never ever seen another one.

  • 13:46:39

    KAUFMANThey're uncommon birds in this area, and ordinarily where you find them is out in -- or it's like open country, fields close to marshes. They especially like the marshy country.

  • 13:46:50

    JOANMm-hmm. That was quite I'm sight. I'm very happy -- I'm very excited whenever I see a raptor.

  • 13:46:55


  • 13:46:57

    NNAMDIJoan, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us. I think we have a couple of lines open, 800-433-8850. When we drive through the region in the spring and summer, our green spaces and trees look green and lush, but many of these spaces are actually under threat from our huge deer populations like where you walked through this morning, Rock Creek Park. How do species like deer affect birds?

  • 13:47:21

    KAUFMANIt's -- they actually have quite an impact because there are so many birds that nest relatively close to the ground. You know, the deer aren't going to affect what's happening up in the tops of the trees, so a tree-top bird like a Red-Eyed Vireo doesn't really care what's going on with deer populations. But so many of the ground birds like Ovenbirds for example, Ovenbirds are much less common than they used to be in this general area, and that's partly because there's so little understory in a lot of the forest.

  • 13:47:55

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Judith who says, "None of my environmentally correct friends believe that outdoor cats have an impact on bird populations. Can you address this?" And another one from Thomas who says, "How are bird populations doing against housecats?"

  • 13:48:11

    KAUFMANWell, this is an issue that creates a lot of controversy. There's a lot of emotion about cats, and we -- my wife and I actually have a couple of cats, but they are housecats. They don't ever go outside, and in fact, anyone who's on Facebook, there's a Facebook page called Cats Belong Indoors, and one of our cats is one of the administrators of that page. Scientists for example at University of Wisconsin have done studies that have shown that cats that are allowed to roam outdoors kill literally millions of birds every year. So they definitely have an impact.

  • 13:48:56

    NNAMDIKeep your cats indoors is what your advice would be.

  • 13:48:58

    KAUFMANYeah, please.

  • 13:49:01

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Unlike dogs or cats, birds select their habitats and stopovers by sight, by sound, so it's possible to either discourage them or encourage them from visiting backyards. How does the built environment affect bird life?

  • 13:49:21

    KAUFMANThe environment of...

  • 13:49:25

    NNAMDIWhat we build and how we build it and what birds see when they are thinking of where to hang out.

  • 13:49:33

    KAUFMANWell, there's the psychological affect on bird habitat. They choose their surroundings visually, and so with careful planting it's possible to greatly increase the local nesting populations, and the good stopover habitat for migrants. One issue is place of windows. There are a lot of birds killed against windows every year because they see the reflections of trees and so on. It's hard to predict ahead of time what's going to be a position for a window that's gonna be really bad for birds, but we encourage people to pay attention, and if they find that they're finding dead birds under their windows, there are things you can do.

  • 13:50:17

    KAUFMANHanging up like strings or something in front of the window during the peak migration periods so you don't have windows that turn into bird killers for these migrants that are passing through.

  • 13:50:28

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Meredith in Germantown, Md. Meredith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:35

    MEREDITHHi, thanks Kojo. I love your show, especially about birds. I've been birding as an amateur for about 25 years. My dad got me involved, and I'm a big animal lover, all types of animals, but what made me want to call is the lady who called in about the problem with the hawks. I know that it's kind of a touchy subject, but what I would suggest is she might focus actually on trying to identify some of the hawks that come to visit because that's a very challenging thing.

  • 13:51:09

    MEREDITHHawks are very difficult, and I went out and got myself a hawk book specifically to try and identify, and I have identified a lot of really neat hawks. So that's what I would suggest that she focus on instead of, you know, the predatory nature of them, because, I mean, they need to live too, right?

  • 13:51:31

    NNAMDIKenn Kaufman, would you agree?

  • 13:51:31

    KAUFMANYeah. Yeah, absolutely. And you're quite right that telling some of the hawks apart can be a real challenge. A couple of the hawks that especially go after birds are Coopers Hawk and Sharp-Shinned Hawk. They're both found in the Washington area, and it can be a challenge to tell them apart, so it's great practice for improving your bird ID skills.

  • 13:51:55

    NNAMDIMeredith, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Carol who says, "My son's second grade class at the Hill School in Middleburg has spent a full academic year full immersed in birds. His talented teachers have found ways to integrate the study and observation of birds in an interdisciplinary way including through creative writing, math, science, and art projects. Today they visited a farm where they observed Purple Martins. The shift in these children in terms of their sensitivity to the environment and the pleasure they find in watching the bird life that is all around is remarkable." Something you kind of had to discover on your own as a child, didn't you?

  • 13:52:33

    KAUFMANThat's right, yeah. But there are teachers, and there are programs for school children that have been tremendously successful, and it's true that you can use birds as a pathway to all these different disciplines and different subject areas, and in fact, the Observatory -- Black Swan Bird Observatory that my wife's the director, and I do some volunteer work. I'm a volunteer by marriage. They have all these programs for school children and they actually worked out with teachers to make sure that the program would fit into the state standards for education. And when you have an inspired teacher who's willing to take that sort of thing on, it can be a great thing for the kids.

  • 13:53:19

    NNAMDISince we're talking about volunteers, let's talk with Tom in Cambridge, Md. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi Tom, are you there? Tom in Cambridge, Md., come in Tom. I'm gonna have to put Tom on hold while we go to Paul in Washington D.C. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:41

    PAULHi. Thanks for taking my call. I live most of the year in Mexico on the Pacific Coast, and for several years now, every night we have a large gray bird that roosts in one of my palm trees. My partner has always thought that it was a duck, and I searched the Internet and found information about Night Herons, but the Night Herons seem to be gregarious. They stay in groups, and this is solitary. I'm wondering if Mr. Kaufman -- Dr. Kaufman has any other idea, is this a Night Heron that we're looking at or is it something else?

  • 13:54:29

    KAUFMANWell, the chances are good that it's a Night Heron. I spent some time on the Pacific Coast of Mexico and especially Yellow Crown Night Heron is fairly common in some areas, and you'll see them roosting in palms in the daytime. There's another bird called Boat-Billed Heron that's in that area, but it's more likely to be in the mangrove areas. So I don't know. If you look at Yellow Crown Night Heron, that would be a good thing to consider.

  • 13:54:57

    PAULMm-hmm. But it's always at night when it's roosting in the tree. Is that typical of Night Herons, and are they generally solitary?

  • 13:55:11

    KAUFMANWell, they're often solitary, but the fact that it's roosting at night at not in the daytime is sort of a problem for it being a Night Heron. So I -- you may need to get more details on the bird to figure out what it is.

  • 13:55:29


  • 13:55:30

    NNAMDIOkay, Paul, thank you very much for your call. For all the research papers and technological tools we have to follow birds, they still remain a very mysterious species. In fact, sometimes we don't even have complete information or documentary evidence of basic details. I found it interesting that your book features digitally manipulated images because you say that photographs can mask as much as they reveal. What do you mean by that?

  • 13:55:54

    KAUFMANWell, photos can be really misleading. I mean, if you think about how many people actually look like the picture on their driver's license, you know, a photo captures just a moment of something and there have been bird guides illustrated with paintings and illustrated with photos for years, and so often I would look at the photos and think, well, that -- that doesn't look quite right. The bird doesn't actually look exactly like that.

  • 13:56:20

    KAUFMANSo as soon as I heard about programs for digital editing and photos in the mid-1990s, I started playing with it, and I found, well, I could take this photo and make it look more like what I thought the bird should look like.

  • 13:56:35

    NNAMDIWe got an email by Dalwit (sp?) who says, "I love all kinds of wildlife. I noticed the crow population is on the increase, and I see that they are preying on other smaller birds. In what category do crows belong?"

  • 13:56:51

    KAUFMANI don't know about category. They're among the most intelligent birds in the world. They're fascinating. They have wonderful behavior to observe. They are increasing, especially in urban areas all over North America. There are more crows than there used to be, and it is an issue for some kinds of birds because crows will eat anything, including other birds.

  • 13:57:12

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Roger who says, "A naturalist addressed the Friends of Dyke Marsh, and instructed us that wine drinkers should choose wine that has cork stoppers. Apparently cork oak plantations in Iberia support bird migration between Africa and Europe. Disused oak plantations are turned into grazing areas." Do you know anything about that at all?

  • 13:57:35

    KAUFMANYeah. That's true. That's an issue that friends of mine from Europe have talked about quite a bit. I don't know how much wine we have to drink to support an entire cork oak grove, but it could be a substantial amount.

  • 13:57:54

    NNAMDIKenn Kaufman. He is a naturalist and writer, author of "Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding," and "King Bird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Visitor." (sic) Kenn Kaufman, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:58:05

    KAUFMANWell, thanks Kojo. Great to be here.

  • 13:58:07

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi. Kenn Kaufman will be appearing this evening at 6:00 at the National Zoo Visitor's Center. That's this evening, Thursday, May 21 (sic) at 6:00 p.m.

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