Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: Birding without Borders

Birding Without Borders. Noah Strycker. 2017. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing: New York. 326 pp. Hardcover and digital formats. $27.00 Hardcover (but note link above).

The book begins with a forward by Kenn Kaufmann and continues with an attempt to justify extreme birding—breaking the world record for seeing more birds than anyone else in one year. No such justification of expense and consumption of fossil fuel (contributions to a carbon-offset program or not) can be made. This story is really a description of a man on a personal, obsessive quest. Such quests, however, make for good reading—especially for anyone interested in birding. Strycker quit his job, broke up with his girlfriend, and depleted his savings. Strycker enjoyed an advance from his publisher, corporate sponsorships and the hospitality of hundreds of birders around the world—he spent “about $60,000 on travel, lodging, food guiding, [and] gear” —a cost of about ten dollars per bird.

His gear list is actually one of the more interesting features of his book. Also fascinating is his itinerary. He begins in Antarctica—an odd choice given the relative paucity of bird life there. He then works his way up most of South America, stops in Jamaica, and continues through Central America and Mexico. He only visits five US states (taking about ten days)—Texas, Arizona, California, Oregon, and New York. Then it’s off to Iceland and Norway. He goes to Spain by way of Turkey. Single species are added in France and Germany. Strycker must be bored by European birds, because they are almost completely left out of the book. He then crisscrosses Africa. Arabia and India are next, followed by Southeast Asia and China. He then does Australia and New Zealand, finally returning to India.

He checks off 6,042 bird species. Only a fraction of these are discussed in his book. The book is surprisingly sparsely illustrated. A photo section only includes nine birds! The most interesting photo is a selfie of Strycker standing next to the bird identification guides that he digitized to download to his laptop. One assumes such an endeavor is compliant with copyright laws.

Strycker writes well (although I am surprised by a trend by his editors to incorrectly use the words “I” and “me.”) His prose does, however, occasionally wander. He takes almost ten pages to get to his first bird sighting. Do we really need to know the American Birding Association’s birding rules or that some birders cheat? (I wonder if Strycker’s capturing a Common Poorwill qualifies as a bird seen under ABA rules.) I can’t say that I needed to read so much about Strycker’s angst over birding as a competitive sport. Strycker might have quoted Pete Dunn that beginners may occasionally misidentify birds, but experts have misidentified thousands. Can you count species you only hear?  Strycker counted just over 5% of his birds by sound alone. What constitutes a bird species, anyway? Can you list species that someone else sees and identifies?

Strycker relied on local birders as guides. Locals often know a region better than professional international guides and can protect birders from bandits or corrupt officials. Local guides usually come free of charge. We are told tidbits about these people, but we learn very little about them. We also get glimpses of some of the environmental problems in places Strycker visits. One chapter covers a very brief history of American birding and Big Years. These subjects are all well and good, but I was left feeling they took the place of more discourse about or images of the birds Strycker saw.

Overall, Birding Without Borders is well-written and one of the best books of this genre.  High points include his account of seeing a Harpy Eagle—the raptor and its ecology are entertainingly described. I wish he devoted more to other species he listed. I could have lived without as much minutia as he sometimes writes about nonbirding topics such as two pages on the dangers of driving in Peru. A photograph or drawing of a Marvelous Spatuletail would have been a nice addition. Perhaps it is a good thing that the book does not devolve into an annotated list of birds. Enjoyment of the book does require that the reader develops some sympathy for Strycker’s frenzied running around the world listing birds. I enjoyed reading Strycker’s account and, unlike with some similar books, I was never bored. His account was much less of “I had a good day today, these are the birds that I saw” book and, for better or worse, much more like a typical travel book, covering snapshots of countryside and human encounters.

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