My Father’s Life List

What drives a man to count birds, to travel to 75 countries to count them, to spend a fortune counting them, and to keep counting them?

This article originally appeared in the October 2000 edition of Audubon magazine. In 2005 it became the basis for a book, To See Every Bird on Earth.

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Five decades of counting had brought Dad’s life list to just three shy of 7,000. We’d boarded the skiff a half-hour earlier and motored onto the Rio Negro, the dark river that joins the Amazon in the heart of the rainforest. Brazil had already been good to us. In just a week Dad had spotted more than a dozen new birds, including the rare Yapacana Antbird, the Racket-tailed Coquette, and the Olive-green Tyrannulet. Others in our group had added even more species to their lifetime tallies. We’d seen a baby Harpy Eagle, poking about a treetop nest. At the Inpa Tower, we had climbed a rickety, 120-foot observation platform and watched a nearly mad mixed-species flock paint the skies about the dense forest.

There were a dozen of us in our group, which was led by Field Guides Incorporated, a renowned bird-touring outfitter. Some of the birders had fewer than 1,000 species on their lists; others were approaching multiples of that number. Some rivaled my dad, with counts reaching 7,000. (Then there was me, a mild enthusiast who doesn’t keep a list.) Every night, sometimes in remote camps and at other times aboard the riverboat that took us deep into the jungle, we’d name names. Our guides would recite what we’d seen that day, and we’d check off species on preprinted forms.

On the morning of Dad’s 7,000th, we woke on the triple-deck riverboat. We pulled on our Wellies and headed toward the islands that make up Janú National Park. Almost before we entered the flooded mangrove forests, we’d spotted a Brown-headed Greenlet (Number 6998) and Cheerie’s Antwren (Number 6999). One to go. We moved farther inland. Our guides stood beneath the forest canopy, aiming microphones into the brush, listening, taping, replaying.

Dad leaned on his walking stick and peered upward. It was a familiar silhouette, one I recognized from when I was a boy and we would walk the marshes of Long Island. Beard, blue eyes, binoculars.

Then we saw it. The Amazonian Black Tyrant is a rather nondescript bird in a region laden with spectacular avifauna. But Dad heard it; Bret Whitney, one of the tour leaders, mirrored the song back on tape, and the little bird flew out, hovering above. I wondered how it viewed the territorial invaders standing below. A dozen birders, natty in L.L. Bean clothing, floppy hats, and rubber boots, drinking champagne, toasting a milestone whose significance most certainly eludes nonbirders.

A few seconds later we stowed the empty bottle and paper cups. Time to move on. There was a whole morning’s worth of birds to count. 

Every big lister starts small. Dad began birding in Queens, New York, where we both grew up. In the 1940s that bedroom community was a patchwork of homes, dairy farms, and wetlands. My father would pedal his bicycle to a place called the Bayside Woods, a marsh that pushed up against the Long Island Sound. He began by looking for Brown Thrashers, then shorebirds. He continued birding as a teenager, and dreamed of becoming an ornithologist. He went to Cornell University—it had a well-known bird program—but, pressured by his parents, he switched majors and went on to become a doctor. Not long after starting a family, he was drafted into the army.

His life list began expanding in the 1960s, when we were stationed in Europe. In 1969 we returned to Queens and bought a house near Bayside. Dad never lived in it. My parents divorced, and Dad was on his own. Spending summer weekends at the shore, he became the telescope man, parked on a Long Island singles beach, peering into the distance.

“Looking for chicks?” he’d be asked.

“Shearwaters,” was his reply.

The Big Listing began in the 1980s. My younger brother, Jim, and I were done with school, and Dad’s current job—director of an emergency room in rural Long Island—gave him a flexible schedule. He began to travel. Bird Number 1,000 came on a trip to Tobago. But it was in Kenya, in 1982, that the fever struck.

“I saw 517 new birds,” Dad says. “That’s what got me into this crazy counting.”

Dad is a good birder. He knows his species; he’s fast with his binoculars. Even so, his listing sometimes seems driven not by birds but by his own psychology, by the way his life has played out. In our riverboat bunk room, Dad admitted that the count is sometimes “sheer obsession.” Like many of his fellow Big Listers, Dad counts other things, too. He ticks off beers and cheese and books. Another Big Lister counts airplane registration numbers. There’s one who uses the same spreadsheet to record birds and sexual conquests.

With only an estimated 9,000 described bird species in the world, the 7,000 Club is exclusive. By various estimates, only 8 to 12 other birders have made it that far—ever. The 8,000-species barrier has been breached just once, by legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger, who died last November as she approached Number 8,500.

Like most birders, Dad plays with his list, breaking it down unto numerous subtallies. The count is multifaceted object of devotional joy. Geography? Season? Year, song, genus, or particular street? All part of the game. The master list is spread out across an array of notepads, officially published checklists, and trip reports.

But describing the game—or even playing it—doesn’t fully explain it. The solidity of numbers makes it easy to known what a Big Lister is. Figuring out why is much harder.

My grandparents had specific hopes for Richard, their only surviving child. Teddy, their first son, died a decade before Dad was born. Morris and Rose Koeppel were Austrian Jews. They had come to the United States in the 1920s. Dad was born in 1935, and grew up in a house that was always filled with refugees, filled with talk of the horrors occurring across the Atlantic. The combination of losing Teddy and the destruction of Jewish life in World War II must have made my grandparents cautious, more conservative. Morris switched careers. He closed his little clothing store and became a life insurance salesman. My grandmother devoted nearly all her time to a fierce Zionism, to the creation of a safe haven for Jews. Their own orientation toward security and their son’s unconventional ambition—to study birds—were on a collision course.

“They brought me to a psychiatrist,” Dad recalls. “She told them that bird-watching was a form of voyeurism.” The long-ago moment still causes Dad’s voice to catch. Later, when he asked for a telescope for his birthday, he received a microscope instead. “I was going to be a doctor,” Dad says. “That was final.”

My father is the kind of man who would do anything for his sons, and the kind of son who would want to make his parents proud. At Cornell, his roommate was Joel Abramson, who went on to become a Big Lister himself (life count: 6,600). “We were both regular college students,” Abramson says. “We went to parties, we chased girls—and we loved birding. But there was no question it would stay a hobby.” Dad came home to Queens, married a neighborhood girl, and entered medical school. He graduated in 1962. I was born that year; my brother the year after that. In 1966, after Dad got drafted, we moved to Texas for basic training.

That’s where he saw Number 500—an Olive Sparrow—and my first real memory is of that place: We’re driving down a highway, and there, on a wire, is a pinkish bird with enormous feathers trailing behind. A Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

After Texas, we were stationed in Heidelberg, Germany. With two young boys, Dad was able to avoid Vietnam. During his leaves, we traveled Europe in a camper van. Dad’s binoculars—the ones I use today, a pair of dented Zeiss 8x50s—were always at the ready, on the floor by the VW’s tall stick shift.

In April of 1968 Dad announced that school was over. “I’m going to be your teacher,” he said. We drove to Spain. My curriculum was reduced to a single textbook: Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. I had daily quizzes on science and grammar; I learned taxonomy and how to use an index. To this day the memory conjures the smell of the heavy, glossy paper Peterson’s color illustrations were printed on. It was the best trip I’ve ever taken with my dad. It is a time he views with great nostalgia.

“Sometimes,” he told me in Brazil, “I wish you were little again.”

After Dad’s discharge from the army, things fell apart. He bought his house near the old marsh. The home where my mother still lives, where I reached adolescence, sits on a hill four blocks from the water. Dad never got to enjoy that perfect binocular view. My parents divorced in 1969. Dad moved to Manhattan.

Dad always wanted a traditional family life. He hasn’t remarried; I know that has disappointed him. Slowly, he’s reoriented himself toward a greater certainty: the list.

The count was fun for two young boys. Our weekends with Dad often centered around birding. We would visit Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, just beyond Kennedy Airport, to watch the fall migration. When a wounded duck died in front of my grandmother’s house, Dad grabbed his emergency medical kit and gleefully taught us dissection. One weekend we waited in line at the American Museum of Natural History to hear Roger Tory Peterson lecture. Some of it rubbed off. I was a bookish kid, thick glasses, terribly unathletic. My rowdy public-school career held few triumphs. But one afternoon a man came to our class with a stuffed Barn Owl and a challenge: “I bet none of you can name 10 birds,” he said.

The other kids tried, stalling out quickly: “Pigeon. Robin. Seagull?”

I raised my hand. Black-capped Chickadee; just the week before, one had sat on my hand, then Jim’s, and we couldn’t stop giggling. Common birds: Baltimore Oriole, Mourning Dove, House Sparrow. A woodcock, seen on a country lane upstate. Then exotics: a Hoopoe, a European species pictured on the cover of my continental Peterson’s. A Manx Shearwater, which Dad spotted one autumn morning on Long Island. A saw-whet owl, seen at a park in the Bronx. The Hooded Merganser we’d autopsied. And finally: the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.

The gentleman asked me my name.

“Aha,” he replied. “Richard Koeppel’s son.”

Wow, I thought. Dad’s famous.

In Brazil that fame was spread among three Big Listers, Jim Plyler, with 7,642 species, is well ahead of Dad—he’s likely to be the next to hit 8,000. Bill Rapp is approaching 7,000.

One big trait all Big Listers share: They say they’re not in competition. Another: They’re in competition.

“What number is that, Richard?” Plyler asked.

“You saw how many in Colombia?”

“Festive parrot? Already got it.”

Listers know where the other guy is. When I interviewed Abramson a few weeks after the Brazil trip, he’d already heard about Dad’s milestone. “The rascal passed me,” he said, laughing—only he didn’t say “rascal.”

Birding’s obsessive nature somewhat mutes the rivalries. The list is more important than who’s ahead, who’s approaching. Each lister adds personal twists to his count. Dad keeps records of his CPB, or cost per bird. “It gets higher and higher,” he says, estimating that he’s spent more than $250,000 on bird tours, and that since the early 1980s he has visited more than 75 countries, averaging four or five a year. His favorite trip: Bhutan, last year. “Just an astoundingly unique place,” he says. And he saw 41 new species.

The CPB concept is both simple and splendidly absurd. You go to a place—Kenya, for example—for the first time. The trip costs $5,000, and you see 517 of the country’s approximately 1,200 species. The cost per bird is a relatively modest $9.67.

There are lots of countries you haven’t visited at this point, and lots of new birds for you to see in them. The CPB on your trips stays low.

“But to be a Big Lister,” Dad says, “you have to double back.” So you return to Kenya. There are 650 species left to bag. They’re rarer of course, so you see fewer—maybe 200. The cost is the same, but your CPB is now $25.

Wait. To be a Really Big Lister, you may even have to triple back. If you’re lucky, prices will have remained steady, but you might add only 10 species to you list. At this point, if you have to ask the cost per bird, you really can’t afford it.

It’s almost impossible to do it without money. Whitney, who guided Snetsinger on many of her trips, estimates that she spent more than $2 million on birding trips during her lifetime. The only member of the 7,000 Club to reach that level without spending a fortune is Peter Kaestner, currently the youngest member of the group: age 46, list 7,400. Kaestner is consul general at the U.S. embassy in Guatemala. Part of the reason he chose that career, he says, was so he could bird cheaply.

As in any real subculture, Big Listers’ rituals extend as “candidates.” You “work” certain species you’re desperate to see. At times the vocabulary nearly conjures the great existential dramas. “There’s a Black-capped Becard,” said one of the Brazil guides, Mario Cohn-Haft. “If anybody needs it.”

So would these birds even exist if they didn’t inhabit somebody’s list?

The first reaction nonbirders have to the concept of Big Listing is astonishment that such an activity exists. The second response is usually more heated. On the plane back from Brazil, I sat next to a young clothing designer from San Diego. “How do you prove it?” she asked, almost indignant. “How does anybody know?”

At least one member of the 7,000 Club is plagued with credibility problems, and once you get a reputation in the bird world for telling fish stories, you’re sunk. Many Big Listers submit their tallies to the American Birding Association—the group maintains a birder’s code of ethics—but there’s no requirement that they do so. Snetsinger, whose veracity was unassailable, chose not to during the last years of her birding career.

Instead, there’s sort of a cabalistic enforcement apparatus. Accumulating a big list requires group trips. That provides material witnesses to most bird-counting exploits. But it’s also true that many of the birds people “see” on these trips are hardly viewed at all: At the nightly naming sessions, it isn’t uncommon for the participants to add any species seen that day to their lists. The Big Listers tend to be more rigorous—good news for the honor system that drives the activity.

But there’s an even bigger issue powering the Big Lists. The total number of different birds in the world is growing. It’s not because new life-forms are being created or discovered.

“It’s because the definition of a species has become a moving target,” says James F. Clements, author of Birds of the World: A Checklist. In 1974, when Clements published his first edition, 8,600 species were listed. The fifth edition, just out, counts 9,743.

Ornithology has always divided into factions: splitters and lumpers. The latter puts species together; the former breaks them apart. Sometimes a species starts one way, turns another, and then turns again. In Dad’s 1947 Peterson’s, the Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles are considered separate species. My 1980 edition lumps them as subspecies of the Northern Oriole. The next edition, following current thinking, will probably split them.

After years of lumper dominance, the splitters are now winning. Whitney is one of the ornithologists leading the charge, using his incredible ear to reveal subtleties in vocalization that imply more distinct speciation than previously thought. “My guess,” he says, “is that the actual number of different species is close to 20,000.”

Listers, of course, love the splitters. In Brazil, Dad pored over a paper Whitney had published recently, accepting the tour leader’s eight-from-one split of the Slaty Antshrike. (If you’re seen the pre-split bird in the habitat where it has now been made distinct, you get to count it.) Dad added four “new” antshrikes when he got home.

The relationship between splitters and listers isn’t just cause and effect. The technological advance that’s put splitters on top—using tape to record vocalizations, and using vocalizations to define species—is also what makes big bird tours possible. “Playback guarantees quantity,” says Clements.

What’s in the woods doesn’t change. If birds exist beyond human observation, then they also exist beyond any imposed definition of species. Suddenly, It’s not just mechanics splitters and listers have in common. They also share a narrative, the dramatic tension of a question always asked but never answered: What’s more important—the bird of the number?

Why list? Why bird? Does Dad’s birding equal Snetsinger’s, or Whitney’s, or mine, or yours? Big Lister, amateur, or gifted ornithologist all seek the same reward. You will see the bird. When you do, you can check it off and move on. Dad's birding grew large, I think, in a world that seemed emotionally unreliable. Snetsinger started in earnest after being diagnosed with cancer. Whitney’s ear is so astonishing that it’s virtually superhuman; he told me on the trip that it always made him feel different. He chose not to study birds in college, not to go to graduate school. “I just wanted to be in the field,” he says. “Listening.”

“It’s an addiction,” says Kaestner, the diplomat. There are times, he says, when he has to force his eyes down, away from the sky, so he can “pay attention to people.”

I interviewed six Big Listers for the story. Each uttered a variant of what Dad told me during his ascent into the thousands. “I planned to stop at 5,000.”

Then: “I couldn’t.”

Dad’s other birding goal is to finally finish off his “nemesis birds.” These are common species he should, by all rights, have seen but hasn’t. A few years ago he flew to Los Angeles to nab a pair. At the beach, we almost immediately spotted one of them, the California Gnatcatcher. But the next day the Mountain Quail eluded us. The chance to see a nemesis bird propels Dad to action. A few years ago, an Ivory Gull was spotted in Maine. Dad drove there, watched the bird for 10 minutes, and went home. When he called me with the news, he was nearly giddy with excitement. Ornithology may appear to be rational, but listing is all emotion. It makes my father so happy.

In Brazil, Dad’s voice was weak. He got winded easily. He’d been a smoker for 50 years. Not long after he returned, his doctor discovered a growth on his vocal cords. An immediate biopsy was ordered. Dad postponed the procedure; there were birds to see in Thailand. As I wrote the first draft of this story, I couldn’t stop worrying. We’d planned a second trip together to Argentina, for this autumn. (By summer it looked as if Dad had beaten the cancer that was ultimately diagnosed.)

The last time I flew into Kennedy, I asked the cabbie to take me to Jamaica Bay. I hadn’t been there since I was 12, and I was amazed at how lush and wild it was. On that day it looked like my Queens; it looked like my father’s Queens. I spotted a Snow Goose, probably a northern migrant, and wondered where Dad had been when he’d seen it. Here? Near his home on Long Island? Or far away, in one of the scattered places the list has taken him. I imagined Dad sitting in a hotel bar in Japan, making check marks. And I thought about the unthinkable: that he’d be gone before 7,500, just as I’d gained an appreciation for what he’d done. Seen where it fit in the world. Where he fit.

And where I fit.

I marked the Snow Goose down in my notepad.