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

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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 ...

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

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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. BACKCOVER: “Marvelous. I loved just about everything about this book.”
—Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman 

“A lovingly told story . . . helps you understand what moves humans to seek escape in seemingly strange other worlds.”
—Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak 

“Everyone has his or her addiction, and birdwatching is the drug of choice for the father of author Dan Koeppel, who writes affectionately but honestly about his father’s obsession.”
Audubon Magazine (editor’s choice) 

“As a glimpse into human behavior and family relationships, To See Every Bird on Earth is a rarity: a book about birding that nonbirders will find just as rewarding.”
—Chicago Tribune

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Dan Koeppel is a renowned nature, outdoors, and adventure writer; but his credentials for this book about obsessed birders goes far beyond his contributions to Outside and Audubon magazines. His father, Richard Koeppel, is a certified Big Lister, one of only ten people to have ever sighted more than 7,000 species of birds. (There are fewer than 10,000 known bird species, and only 900 of them frequent the United States.) To fulfill his dream, the elder Koeppel has scaled down his medical practice, abandoned any thought of a personal life, and spent a fortune tracking down birds in over 60 countries. To See Every Bird on Earth is both a testimonial to an astonishing addiction and an unforgettable memoir about a father-son relationship surviving at the extremes.
Publishers Weekly
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) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
This interesting book explores the world of birders, from weekend bird watchers to those individuals who become obsessed with the idea of seeing every bird that exists in the world. By tracing the career of Richard Koeppel, the author's father, who became interested in birds at age 12 after seeing a Brown Thrasher in his New York neighborhood, the author explains how the list of birds has developed and changed over the years. He divides the world into "Lumpers" and "Splitters," those who tend to see the similarities between birds and those who see the differences, and he explores the role of famous people like Audubon and Peterson and discusses how birding becomes the most important thing in life for some people. Koeppel's main focus, however, is the life of his father. Starting in the years before and during WW II, through Richard's youth and early marriage, then divorce and its aftermath, Richard's career waxed and waned until he became one of the few birders to have collected over 7,000 birds on his life list. Dan Koeppel writes a loving, insightful and nonjudgmental portrait of his father and of the subculture of birders, a world he has lived on the fringes of all his life as the son of a man sometimes obsessed with birds and sometimes so caught up in his own personal turmoil of marriage, fatherhood, and career that he had no time for winged creatures. Dan Koeppel is a writer and commentator about the outdoors and his book is well documented. His bibliography will be useful to anyone interested in birding, even though his insights and observations about his father will probably be best appreciated by a high school-age or older reader. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior highschool students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Penguin, Plume, 278p. bibliog., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Dan Koeppel, a successful author, journalist, and outdoorsman, has written an absorbing story about his father's obsession-to see as many species of birds as possible. Richard Koeppel is one of only a dozen or so people among the top world bird "listers," that is, those who have spotted more than 7000 species, an enterprise requiring great effort, time, strategy, money, knowledge, and endurance, including dozens of guided tours to scores of countries. Koeppel knowledgeably analyzes such quests, showing they have much in common with other collection-driven pursuits and addictive hobbies, sometimes to the detriment of family, finances, and health. Part of the author's charm derives from his good mix of psychology, self-analysis, travel tales, and overview of the development of natural history fieldwork, both by professionals and amateurs. Good reading; a pleasure to recommend.-Henry T. Armistead, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An affecting story of a son's efforts to understand his father's obsession with bird listing-as well as a pleasurable journey through the astonishing world of birders who measure their counts in the thousands. It all started in 1974, in Queens, with a brown thrasher. The author's father, then 11 years old, was inexplicably smitten. Richard Koeppel would go on from there to tally more than 7,000 species. His family suffered from his abstraction, but it would be unfair to blame the birds, for Richard was a withdrawn man with demons from his childhood. His marriage ended in divorce when his son was quite young, and that in turn bestowed upon Dan his own demons. But the first-time author does not invite our pity, even though his writing is brushed with sorrow; indeed, readers will admire his courage in keeping after his father and take pleasure in the heart-gladdening connection they have made over the past few years. Although Dan never really puts a finger squarely on Richard's birding mania (somehow, the comment that "it's all about the numbers" doesn't fill the bill), he does explore a few possibilities. The thirst for gaining perspective on our place in the world drives some birders, since the sheer number of species makes one think long and hard about evolution and the complexity of ecosystems, and of course birding is a good place to hide from life's many miseries. In addition, the author recounts with descriptive ease trips he took with his father to bird-pretty interesting, once he got past the point where his father looked at birds and he looked at his father. Among his vest-pocket biographies of legendary listers, especially good are those of the few who traced a Zen-like evolutionfrom looker to lister to purely curious, a state of combined emptiness and fullness. Certainly not the happiest of lives, though it makes an irresistible story rich with idiosyncrasy-not to mention all those glorious birds.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452285392
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/25/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 361,350
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 8.04 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Dan Koeppel is a well-known outdoors, nature, and adventure writer who has written for the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Audubon, Popular Science, and National Geographic Adventure, where he is a contributing editor. Koeppel has also appeared on CNN and Good Morning America, and is a former commentator for Public Radio International's Marketplace.

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Read an Excerpt


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 Jßu 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 lived a life that, in so many respects, didn't turn out the way he wanted. He buried the sadness of his disappointments by watching birds, by tending his logbooks and checklists the way a gardener nurtures his blooms. On our trip, Dad and I connected in ways that were both lovely and difficult. I saw his self-destructive side, a part of him that for years has shut out family and love. And I saw his best qualities, a man with a gentle heart, hidden by pain, but not hard to detect upon careful inspection. The triumph of the list is the triumph of that hidden heart because it is proof not just of obsession, but also grace, and glory.


Dad and the Big Listers aren't just chasing numbers; they're chasing the definition of life itself. Not long ago, there were only thought to be six thousand bird species on earth. Ten years from now, most ornithologists believe, there will be three times that many. It isn't that new species are evolving; rather, scientists are arriving at new definitions of what species are. This advanced thinking-and birds are on the cutting edge of it-has profound implications for human understanding. Speciation is evolution. Evolution is at the heart of who we are, what life is on this planet. I hope that this book shows how the pursuit of birds relates to-and grows from-science's quest to explain our existence. I hope it shows what that science means to those of us who are content to simply watch at our backyard feeders. And I hope it shows why birds-especially birds—can lead to these understandings; the same reason Darwin chose finches to illustrate his theories- birds are active, colorful, and musical, all easy-to-differentiate evolutionary traits-are the reasons for the more general romantic love of birds. It shouldn't be a surprise that humans are fascinated by creatures that soar, sing, nest, and battle.

To see every bird on earth isn't easy. It requires strategy, money, and time; it is sometimes dull, and sometimes dangerous, and very often absurd. The underlying "game" of birding is a labyrinth of mechanics, rules, and rivalries. There are birders who've been shunned for cheating, internecine fights over what truly constitutes a sighting (seeing is not the only form of believing in modern birding-currently, many birders consider a "heard" bird countable). Birders' lists themselves are often moving targets, subject to frequent revision and categorization: You don't just start at one; instead, you create multiple tallies, delineated by year, region, species, genus, and just about any other category a person could think of.

My father says his listing is "an addiction, just like any other addiction." Though he spent a considerable portion of his medical career attempting to cure those with physical dependencies, I wasn't surprised that he didn't care to engage in analysis of his motivations: "I can't explain it. I can't even say it ever gave me a sense of euphoria. It's just what I do."

But I want to explain it. I want to understand. I know Dad won't agree with everything I've said in this book. I know he won't share many of my conclusions about what drives him. He won't be completely happy with some of the things I've revealed here. But that's the nature of love, especially between father and son. What Dad has given me, through all the trouble and pain, and finally through triumph, is his legacy. I didn't want it to be burnished and idealized. Dad's story is so much more beautiful when it follows the alternately tragic and elating course of a real life.

As I was writing this book, I spent hours on the phone with Dad. I accumulated hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews with him. I was, of course, using birds as a way to find out about him, as a door into his life. Sometimes the interviews were tedious. They were occasionally fun; often they were painful. Dad was in a big hurry to get them done. At first, I thought this was because of his typical impatience for introspection. But then he let it slip. He was nearing his seventieth birthday: "I was worried," he says, "that something would happen to me before you got the whole story. I wanted to get this done, so you'd have it."

He wanted me to get through the list, as well, he wanted to pass it on. Once it was safely in my hands, it was up to me to determine what, exactly, I'd been given. It was only when I began to read between the seemingly dry and formal lines of the tally itself that I realized what such a lifetime of counting contains: the desire to find one's own place in creation, pursued with a single-mindedness that so far has evolved only in humans. Seeing every bird is a way of seeing everything, of attempting to know everything. Such attempts mark human history, in religion and art as well as in science; they're seductive, and sometimes dangerous. The story told here is about finding a way into that seduction-and finding a way back."

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2006

    Too much pschoanalysis, too little birding

    When Koeppel stuck to his father's birding activities I enjoyed the book, but too often for my taste he squandered pages dusting skeletons in the family closet. In the end, I don¿t think the book will be fully satisfying to either birders or skeleton aficionados. Still, accounts of top-ranking world birders are not easy to find and this is one of the few.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2013

    Love this book

    Because its one book that inspired my dream to see every bird on earth and i will :)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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