Most people feel that moths are just pests to be kept away from their closets, but for naturalist Kenn Kaufman, they’re so much more. “People think of these dingy, little brown things that eat holes in their sweaters,” Kaufman laments. “There are 600 to 650 kinds of North American butterflies, but there are close to 11,000 species of moths. They’re vastly more diverse and come in every color of the rainbow.”
Kaufman’s affection for winged creatures is evident in his latest book, Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, which was published last February. The book joins his other volumes of field guides to North American birds, butterflies, and mammals, and he’s currently researching a guide to North America’s reptiles, as well. If compiling field guides seems like a literal walk in the park (or woods, in Kaufman’s case), think again. Kaufman digitally edits every photograph that appears in his guides to correct shadows, colors, and scale—he’s the only field-guide series author to do so. Each photograph takes one to two hours to edit, and each guide contains more than 2,000 images, so this is no easy task.
But the wingman’s projects extend beyond field guides. Kaufman, 53, has written four other books and is a regular contributor to magazines like Audubon. A collection of his essays is slated to be published next spring. He’s also a self-described “porch-light evangelist,” encouraging people to stay outside on their porches until late in the evening to observe the array of moths drawn to the light. “You can find amazing, colorful little moths even in the middle of the city,” he says.
While Kaufman’s subjects range from cougars to carpenter ants, birds are his true passion. When he was 16, he dropped out of high school in Wichita, Kansas, and hitchhiked across America to go birding, which often meant trekking through freezing rain, surviving on unsavory dishes like cat food, and fending off muggers and cops. Despite the risks, his self-education paid off: Kaufman became one of the foremost authorities on birds, working with experts like Roger Tory Peterson, and leading birding expeditions on all seven continents.
Kaufman recalls one brush with danger while searching for the rare lesser prairie-chicken in Oklahoma. As a scruffy, long-haired hippie, Kaufman, then 19, attracted the attention of one local rancher who marched up to him wielding a shotgun. Luckily, a game warden came by and smoothed things over. Kaufman finally found the pale, sandy-colored grouse, which he calls “a beautiful bird.”
Seeking out often-overlooked creatures isn’t just a career for Kaufman — it’s a philosophy. If we learn to identify animals, he reasons, we’ll be closer to understanding how all species are interconnected. “That little brown bird on the beach could just be a little brown bird,” Kaufman says. “You might admire it for a minute and then go on. But if you know that it’s a pectoral sandpiper, and that it’s come from someplace in Alaska or even Siberia and it’s on its way to Argentina, then it really makes your world more three-dimensional.”
Story by Sarah Parsons. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2006. This story was added to MNN.com.