Here’s How Drastically Birding Has Changed Over the Past 50 Years

On the 25th anniversary of his book "Kingbird Highway," Kenn Kaufman reflects on the many ways the hobby has transformed since he first hitchhiked across the country chasing birds in the 1970s.

It was 25 years ago this month—July 1997—that my Kingbird Highway was published.

If you haven’t heard of it, that’s okay. The book describes my adventures as a teenager hitchhiking around North America in the early 1970s, in a single-minded search for all the birds I could find.

When it was published, I didn’t have high expectations. After all, by that time the events it described were almost 25 years in the past already. But my typed rough draft had been sitting in a box for years, taunting me, and I was just impatient to get it out there so I could forget about it.

But then a funny thing happened: People read it. Kingbird Highway was never really promoted, but word-of-mouth kept it afloat. It’s now in its second paperback edition and still in print, people are still reading it, and it has been honored as a “classic” by the National Outdoor Book Awards. So when Audubon magazine’s editors asked me to reflect on the book’s 25th anniversary, I was happy to do so. I quickly realized, however, that this was also an opportunity to think about how much has changed in the birding world since my fateful adventure. Here are some of the highlights.

People Were Just Starting to Chase Birds Back Then

In the early 1970s, hitchhiking around North America was relatively safe (at least for a white boy like me, not necessarily for others) and ridiculously easy: By following the Interstates, I could catch rides from coast to coast in four or five days. So even though I had no job, no car, and no money, I could go birding all over the continent. And birding all over was a relatively new thing. In previous decades, many people had actively birded their local areas or home states, but relatively few had gone chasing bird lists from coast to coast. By 1970, that was changing.

It was a tremendously exciting time. The American Birding Association had just formed, the first organization for the most avid enthusiasts across the U.S. and Canada, bringing an explosion of communication and sharing of information. Thanks partly to the contacts of the ABA, I met many of the top experts of that era, including Roger Tory Peterson and Chan Robbins, and got to know many of the kids who would become the top birders and naturalists of my own generation. I hitchhiked to Alaska and back twice, made numerous visits to hotspots from Florida to Maine to California, slept under bridges, ate catfood, saw hundreds of bird species, fell in love, spent a couple of nights in jail, almost set a couple of records, almost died a couple of times, and had a blast. And I’ve been blessed to stay heavily involved in the birding community ever since, so I’ve had a front-row seat for watching the changes in this wonderful pursuit.

The Birding Community Is Much More Diverse Now

One big way in which birding has improved: Our community is becoming more diverse. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were hardly any young women involved, almost all the leadership positions were filled by men, and it was many years before I started to meet any Black birders. Now young birders’ clubs and conferences include an even mix of genders, and the National Audubon Society, American Birding Association, and American Ornithological Society are all currently led by women. Successful events like Black Birders’ Week have highlighted the growing racial diversity of the birding family. We still need a lot more progress, but things seem to be moving in the right direction

There Are Actually More Bird Species to See 

One change that might seem surprising is that there are more bird species to seek now. In an official checklist supplement published in 1973, several species were lost to “lumping:” Multiple juncos were combined into the Dark-eyed Junco; flickers of the East and West were combined into Northern Flicker; the “Blue Goose” was finally recognized as just a color morph of the Snow Goose. But since then, thanks to more field research and genetics studies, there have been more splits than lumps. The Scrub Jay of 1973 is now divided into four species (Florida, Woodhouse’s, California, and Island Scrub-Jays). Plain Titmouse is now two species, Oak and Juniper Titmice. Sharp-tailed Sparrow is now split into Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows. Brown Towhee is now split into Canyon and California Towhees. Canada and Cackling Geese are now separated. Western and Clark’s Grebes are now separated. Further examples among the flycatchers, plovers, sparrows, wrens, rails, and others add to the mix. Birders working on their lists today enjoy a net gain of more than two dozen species from splits alone.

At the same time, in the Mexican border region, species that were rare or unknown in 1973 have become regular visitors or residents. Clay-colored Thrush is now common in southern Texas, and species now seen every year in either Texas or Arizona include Ruddy Ground Dove, Berylline Hummingbird, Hook-billed Kite, Black-capped Gnatcatcher, Buff-collared Nightjar, Rufous-capped Warbler, Flame-colored Tanager, and others. Some of these may be seen more often now because more birders are looking for them, but most have genuinely expanded northward, probably responding to a warming climate.  

Our Knowledge of Seabirds and Siberians Has Greatly Expanded

Today, we have a much better understanding of the status of seabirds offshore. In the early 1970s, no one expected to see Black-capped Petrels or Band-rumped Storm-Petrels in North American waters. Now they’re seen regularly, even by the dozens, on pelagic trips to the right zones. Alaska is another frontier that’s much better known today. Although records of a few stray Asian birds in Alaska go back a century, the idea of intentionally going to look for such vagrants was a new thing, barely getting started, in the early 1970s. Today, many birders travel every spring and fall to Alaskan islands like St. Paul or St. Lawrence specifically to look for rarities blown over from the Siberian side.

We’ve Lost Some Exotic Species—and Gained Others  

What about non-native, introduced species? A few birds we used to count in the 1970s, including Crested Mynas around Vancouver and Budgerigars in Florida, have since disappeared, suggesting they were never fully established in the first place. But several other exotics are now considered established enough to be on the main list for birders, including Purple Swamphen, Scaly-breasted Munia, and more than half a dozen parrots and parakeets. The Eurasian Collared-Dove, never recorded in the U.S. before the mid-1980s, is now abundant in many areas from coast to coast.

More Birders Mean More Discoveries

People often ask me if things like habitat loss and declining numbers have made birds harder to find. The answer is: No, not really. Some are less common or widespread than they used to be, and that’s plenty of reason for all of us to support conservation efforts. But with so many birders in the field, we can always find up-to-date sightings and go where each species is being seen. Even where populations have declined, the vast increase in information has made almost all bird species easier to find.

Simplifying it to raw numbers: In North America north of the Mexican border, before the 1970s, no one had seen more than 600 species in a year or more than 700 species in a lifetime. Now several birders every year report annual lists over 700, and the top life lists are over 900—or pushing 1000 with birds from Hawaii, which the American Birding Association added to their checklist area in 2016.

We Know a Lot More About Bird Identification

Of course, there are other changes besides an expanding list. Collectively, we know a lot more now about identifying birds, especially in challenging groups like shorebirds, gulls, flycatchers, and seabirds. The popular ID books available in 1973—the Peterson guides and the Chan Robbins “Golden Guide”—were meant to be compact and beginner-friendly, so they emphasized the basics and didn’t have room for much detail. The National Geographic bird guide, which appeared in 1983, took a different tack, going straight for the technical details that more experienced birders would want. Some other successful guides since have followed that lead. A little later, specialized ID guides for particular groups began to arrive: gulls, hummingbirds, sparrows, and more. My own Peterson Field Guide to Advanced Birding (1990) had chapters on 35 of the most challenging groups. But within a few years, the amount of expert bird ID detail available on the internet outstripped anything available in a book—not only analysis and photos, but sound recordings of every bird imaginable, so important for many groups. So when I did a thorough update two decades later (as the Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding in 2011) I shifted the emphasis to things like how to understand molt, plumage sequences, geographic variation, and other concepts that apply to all birds. Today much of the ID information is shifting to apps, which may even identify the bird for you.

Technology Has Completely Transformed the Hobby

By far the biggest leaps have come about through changes in communication—and most of those only in the past two decades. The instant connection afforded by cell phones, the vast amount of information available online, and the combination of these two as we access the web from our phones, have utterly changed many aspects of birding. To see how profound these recent changes are, let’s compare an example birding experience in 1972 vs. 2022. You’re out at a wildlife refuge with two friends and you discover a Wood Sandpiper, a rare stray from Eurasia, potentially a first record for your state . . .  

In 1972: You study the bird and gradually realize it doesn’t match anything in your field guide. One of your friends suggests it might be a stray from some other continent. After writing careful notes, you drive 20 miles to a pay phone and start trying to call some experts. Finally you find someone at home; he gets a European field guide down off the shelf, and after a lengthy conversation you’re considering that the bird might be a Wood Sandpiper. The next morning, a dozen serious birders join you at the refuge. The bird is still there, and you all study it some more, comparing it to a couple of European bird books. One person there has a good camera and telephoto lens; he takes some photos that may be useful for confirming the ID later. That evening you call more birding friends around the region. A couple of days later, mention of the Wood Sandpiper is included in the weekly update of the regional “rare bird alert” recording, so within a week or 10 days, most of the avid birders in the region know about this rare visitor (which might or might not still be around).

In 2022: You study the bird through higher-quality binoculars and spotting scopes than any that were available in the 1970s. Then you check your field guide, which now includes Wood Sandpiper. It looks good, but you also check a couple of apps and websites on your phone. Your friends have good cameras and they’re already snapping photos, and in a minute you’ll be using your phone to digiscope the bird. But first you call a regional expert; she’s out birding but she answers the phone instantly. You text her a back-of-the-camera image of the bird, and she agrees it looks perfect for a Wood Sandpiper. She posts it to the state birding listserve while you post it to a Facebook birding page, and you report to eBird, which will send out notifications to everyone who’s signed up for alerts. By an hour after you spotted the Wood Sandpiper, birders all over North America (and on other continents) know about it. If it sticks around, thousands of birders may come to see it.  


So, given that there are more bird species to seek now, easier ways to identify them, more information about where to find them, better gear and technology to observe them, and a much larger and more diverse community of birders, does that mean that the whole experience of birding is better now than it was?

Not necessarily. Certainly right now is an exciting time. With so many birders in the field, rare vagrant birds are being discovered constantly and we can hear about them right away, keeping our level of interest and anticipation at a high pitch. But it was also incredibly exciting to be a teenaged birder in the early 1970s—partly because not as much was known then, and there was so much potential for personal, individual discovery every time we went out.

Personally, I feel thrice blessed: That I had those experiences in the early 1970s, that I was able to write a book about them, and that some people are still reading the book in the 2020s. And blessed again that I’m still birding today, and excited every time I step out the door. As I wrote in Kingbird Highway, “Any day might be a special one—you just had to get outside and see if it was.”