Venture: Kenn Kaufman in Columbus

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Kenn Kaufman started watching birds as a kid, and his hobby quickly turned into an obsession. Before finishing high school, he dropped out to hitchhike across North America in search of the continent's rare, exciting species.

In terms of being obsessed, that adventure only made things worse.

Over the years, Kaufman became a leading authority on the avian world. He's edited journals, produced field guides, presented lectures and won lifetime achievement awards decades in the middle of his career.

This Wednesday, he'll lead several short trips during a fundraiser for the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, a conservation facility on the Whittier Peninsula.

The Wine and Warblers event will include vino tasting, appetizers and bird walks with Ohio experts. Admission starts at $40 per person, but guests need to purchase a single $100 ticket or a pair at the $75 level to join a walk led by Kaufman and wife Kimberly.

Those who do will meet a man with a lifetime of expertise and the same wild passion that set him ablaze growing up in Indiana and Kansas.

Kaufman shared more last week from his home in northwestern Ohio.

Ken, you have a global perspective on birds. What could you say is unique about the Whittier Peninsula?

I don't have a huge amount of experience right there, but I've been there a few times. There are a couple things that make it really great.

One of them is the fact that it's on the river. These small birds are mostly migrating at night, so they just spread across the landscape on a broad front. There's not really such a thing as a flyway for the small birds, though that's a popular concept with ducks. When it starts to get light and they look for a place to come down, they'll often funnel into the river corridors. You get this real concentration along the rivers - and that's going to be enhanced if you're in an urban area.

Columbus is a beautiful city, but the parking lots and stuff are just not as good for warblers as trees would be.

To me, the other thing that makes the area really important is the fact that it is in a major city. If someone's got tons of money and tons of free time, they can take off to the wilderness to look for birds. Having a place that's a real migration hotspot within the city is a major benefit.

I know that you recently released the "Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding." What are birders going to find inside?

Advanced birding is not rocket science. The book isn't really intended for birders who are already advanced - because they know how to do that stuff. It's really for anyone who is trying to learn to identify birds. The audience I had in mind when I was writing it was myself at age 14.

I was a rabid young birder. I spent all my spare time on birds. There was a lot of stuff I couldn't figure out and all these things I saw that didn't quite match the pictures in the books. I was trying to understand what was going on.

The subtitle of the book is "Understanding What You See and Hear." It's not a bunch of really esoteric field marks and things. It's more sort of explaining, "OK. If you're going out looking for warblers for the first time, what's the best approach to take?" It's got basically all the things that I wished that I had known earlier when I was trying to learn to identify birds.

One of the things that people notice about you is that you've maintained the excitement of a rabid young birder. How do stay excited about the bird world ?

Part of what helps is that things are changing constantly with the migration. There's always something going on. Even if I were jaded and had gotten out of bird-watching altogether, I think if I went outside now and saw a Blackburnian warbler, it would be hard not to get sucked back in.

I'm interested in every other aspect of nature, too. As a teenager, I went through phases where I would just go around chasing reptiles for a month or dragonflies or something. I still do stuff like that. I've done field guides to mammals and butterflies and insects. When I do something like that, I'm just really eager to get back to the bird stuff.

Everything in nature is fascinating if you start to look at it closely enough. For some reason, birds seem to have more appeal than anything else in terms of natural history.

It always struck me that birds are the largest visible animals that I c ouldn 't identify. It seemed weird to know what a raccoon was - but understand nothing about this animal flying near my window.

I think that would be something that people would want to know. I sometimes make the comment that living on Earth without knowing anything about nature is sort of like living in Tokyo without knowing a word of Japanese. You can get by, but you're going to miss a lot of what's going on.

What's your all-time favorite bird ?

My favorite bird, typically, is the one that I happen to be looking at at that moment. I can't narrow it down. I couldn't even give you the top hundred.

For more places to bird, hike, fish, paddle and camp, click to the Ohio Adventure Map at

Bird with Ken:

"Wine and Warblers"

Grange Insurance Audubon Center

5:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 18

505 W. Whittier St., Brewery District