Illustration by Thisbe Wu

Richard Prum got his first pair of glasses in the spring of fourth grade. Near-sightedness directs a person’s attention inward, he says, so the glasses were a “sudden revelation that brought me into the world.” Struck by the vibrant visual details of far-away things, Prum became, within six months, a devoted bird-watcher. 

He cannot explain why he chose birds. He credits his undying passion to an “amorphous nerdiness,” but by that logic he could have easily dedicated his life to trees or airplanes. “Birds,” he admits, “were sort of random.” And yet, 50 years into birding and 40 years into academic ornithology, Prum has never considered doing anything else. “It’s what I live for,” he tells me.

I met with Prum in his office on a rainy Friday afternoon. The office had the frantic energy of an artist’s studio, cluttered with tea boxes and pictures of birds. Prum spoke about his life with the composure and rhetorical ornamentation of a man who has been interviewed many times, and leaned forward in his chair when he spoke about something particularly interesting. I admittedly did not learn very much about birds themselves, but Prum showed me what it might be like to love them.  


Prum keeps a collection of orange notebooks in the right hand drawer of his office desk. The notebooks chronicle the birds he has seen, what he noticed about them, and the places he went to find them. 

The oldest notebook we look at is his “life list,” a numbered record of all the birds he has ever encountered. He thinks he started it in high school. 

“And then I stopped,” Prum says, “In the middle of grad school. Why did I stop? There was just so much going on in life.” The last number is 1,158. 

“You’d be a top EBirder,” I offer, proud to showcase my knowledge of the popular bird-logging platform.  

“Well, surprisingly not!”

Richard Prum is now close to having seen 5,000 species of birds in his life. He has abandoned the notebook, but he maintains a life-list on a database where he can alter the taxonomy at his leisure.

He writes more detailed observations in his birding and field journals, which read almost like diaries. Prum does not remember birds in isolation from their environment. A notebook from July ’85, for instance, focuses on manakins but also recounts the trains he took and contains drawings of the town. 

“This is last March,” he says, flipping through some more pages. “I’m in Sepilok, Borneo.” Though he means that he was in Borneo, I wonder to myself if he feels, in some sense, transported back to his research trip. 

Prum stars birds that he has seen for the first time: these are “lifers” and “have a certain kind of status.” He cannot always identify the species of the bird at first glance. For this reason, he describes birds with detail, to reference later. 

“Large, tan below, tan and brown above. Long dusty brown tail,” reads one description. 

A little green fruit pigeon. Tree top male. Brown wings, orange breasts, and a gray head,” reads another.  

“A lot of the time, I can look at these notebooks like, oh, I remember that bird!” Prum tells me. I can see that bird. I can see the rock it was sitting on. I can see the branch. And that goes back to the 70s.”

“Time travel,” I say.

“Yeah! That makes it worthwhile.” 


A lot of birding is waiting. Birds do not just appear when you want to see them. Sometimes they hide. I read Justine E. Hausheer’s  article on, “The Lessons of Epic Birding Failures,” and learn that it is possible to leave an intricately planned birding trip having done very little more than sit, silently, staring at nothing. The author finds this frustrating. “This was my one chance to find the trogon,” she writes, “and the stupid bird wasn’t there.” I gather that the birdwatching life demands an unusual amount of mental stamina.

Prum has plenty. After a long day of observing birds and their behavior, he will sometimes go out and wait for owls for another three hours.

“You are in this state of sensory focus,” he says. “You want to hear that bird. You want to see that bird.”

“For three hours?” I say, knowing that the longest I could possibly last in a state of sensory focus is about five minutes.

“I mean, yeah! You’re not gonna see that owl if you don’t try. You’re not gonna see it back in your bed.” His wife, he adds, doesn’t like owling as much as he does. “Not much at stake for her. She doesn’t live and die for this. If I haven’t seen it, I’ll feel shitty. Just like a disappointed 12-year old kid. It doesn’t go away.”

Prum grew up in Manchester, Vermont, which had enough birds for bird watching but not quite enough birds to satisfy his increasing appetite for adventure. He once saw an Ethiopia Airlines advertisement that contained a beautiful illustration of a sunbird and that read, as he recounts it, “There are 45 species of birds that you will never see until you come to Ethiopia.” He was thrilled by the romance of that invitation. But he also remembers feeling intimidated; with an awareness of the scale of the world and its offerings comes a sense of impossibility. 

“There were a lot of birds that I dreamed of seeing that I couldn’t see because I was in this little landlocked, wooded valley,” Prum says. 

As a kid, Prum spent a lot of time learning about the birds he couldn’t see yet. He memorized bird calls by listening to educational records put out by companies like Cornell and the Peterson’s Field Guide—records that, he tells me, contained 350 to 400 bird songs each. On one side a voice would introduce Prum to the names and locations of singing birds. On the other side a bird would sing alone.

“It was like a quiz!” Prum says. 

Over time, he accrued a small collection of birding books. During our interview, Prum speaks about his childhood collection as if it were right next to him, to the right of his chair.

“There was a couch. And there was a desk here. And there was a box. Inside the box, there were a bunch of books, sort of like this,” he says while demonstrating shapes with his hands. “Spines up. Organized.” If he needed to know something, he’d pull out a book, browse until he encountered a question that could be answered by a different book, and look at that book instead, “around in circles until bedtime.”

Prum tells me he was a dorky kid. His classmates associated him with all things nature and would tease him for it. They named him “Ranger Rick” after the raccoon mascot of a kids’ magazine put out by the National Wildlife Federation. And they would go up to him and say, “ever eat a pine tree?” quoting the Euell Gibbons Grape-Nuts commercial. 

He scoffs. “As if bird-watching is related to natural foraging!”

When he didn’t find like-minded peers at school, he formed friendships with local bird-watchers. A group of mostly retired women would pick Prum up on the weekends, spend the day birding, and drop him back off at home. These were his “birding buddies,” Prum tells me—they took him seriously.

Prum has now followed birds all around the world and likely has more birding buddies than he can count. Both a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, he has led a stellar career by any standard. But whether he is reconstructing dinosaur feathers or breaking down binary concepts of biological sex, Prum’s work is driven by the same obsession that made him a peculiar child. He is crazy about birds. He will do what it takes to see them, hear them, understand them.  


“Birdwatching is like a hunt,” Prum says, “only you are hunting for cognitive trophies: the experience of seeing and identifying that bird.” But birds are more than objects of human curiosity; they are living, breathing agents with experiences of their own. I ask Prum if he takes an ecocentric approach to studying birds. He replies that, if he hadn’t always consciously thought about ecocentrism, he has always taken birds seriously, which necessarily “reframes your relationship to the world.”

Prum tells me about a study done on brain recognition, where researchers performed a series of tests on bird experts and airplane experts. They found that the bird experts recognized birds with the face recognition module of the brain. 

“This is the same place that you use to recognize Abraham Lincoln, or Jennifer Aniston, or the myriad of faces that you know,” Prum explains. “Becoming a birdwatcher is training your brain to treat these natural objects as recognizable individuals.” But for this recognition to happen, you have to care. “If you don’t care, then Jennifer Aniston and Abraham Lincoln just look like a myriad of other beautiful people and wrinkly guys.”  

Birding, Prum suggests, would not exist in a world where birds are trivial. Nor is it possible to watch birds intently without beginning to care for them. A person might embark on a birding trip from a place of personal ambition, but must ultimately exercise patience and empathy in order to succeed. Birds require you to love them on their own terms. 


In 1987 Prum had what he calls a “fascinating summer.” He followed his wife to Senegal, where she was making a documentary film, and found time at the end of her project to go birding at the Mauritian border with a friend. He remembers attending a riveting concert the night before his flight home and going to sleep with buzzing ears.

When he woke up the next morning, the buzzing had grown into “explosive roaring” and he was “catastrophically dizzy.” He was eventually diagnosed with idiopathic hearing loss in his right ear, where he could no longer hear above 1500 hertz. For an ornithologist, that range of sound is especially significant: “up there,” Prum tells me, “is birds.” 

Over the next decade, Prum’s hearing problems worsened. He developed Meniere’s disease in his left ear. He tells me that the disease makes you feel “seasick in your own body” and he remembers having to leave suddenly during dinner to throw up in the bathroom. The experience was lonely. “No one knows what you went through, and what you’re able to do out of that problem.” 

Today, though Prum is functionally deaf, his latest hearing aids allow him to transpose frequencies of bird songs that he can no longer hear. “I can hear the blackburnian warbler again,” he tells me. “But it’s not the way it’s supposed to sound.” He compares his attempts to identify transposed bird sounds to trying to differentiate between a flute and a piccolo playing at the frequency of a bassoon.

“That is such a deep loss,” Prum says to me. “Just talking about it now, I can feel it, it’s with me everyday. But I had to figure out a way to stay connected with what is obviously my life’s work.”

He resists the impulse to find beauty or opportunity for growth in adversity. “Suffering is suffering. Loss is really a loss. But I do feel that my connection to birds and biology was rich enough to find new and productive areas of research.”

Neurons still fire in Prum’s brain, he tells me, when he thinks of bird sounds. He is able to conjure up the bird records he listened to as a kid by memory and listen to them in his head. But he cannot hear any new birds; the sounds are artifacts of an unrecoverable past. Any future encounters he has with birds will have to be silent. 


I ask Prum if he has a favorite bird; he says no. (“To me that’s like answering who’s your favorite child.”) Still, some birds are special. They carry special memories. 

He loves cotingas for example, and the velvet asity birds that he studied in Madagascar. He remembers manakins with particular vividness because of the long hours he spent watching them in South America in the 80s. “These are little birds,” he tells me, “and you’ve got to spend days with them to learn anything.” He learned that manakins are frugivores who receive no paternal care and whose mothers have only two babies in a nest to avoid predators. His observations on manakins later contributed to theories of aesthetic evolution, but he wasn’t thinking about that at the time. He was only watching.

Prum breaks meaning-making into steps. He begins with the simple drive he’s retained from his childhood, which he summarizes with the phrase, “wow, I’d really like to see that!” From there “you try it, and maybe you fail, and you try it again.” And then, finally, “someday you see.”  

I wonder if Prum means to say that dreams become important in our attempts to realize them. He tells me that he associates birds not only with the time and place he encountered them, but also with the broader mission that they were a part of—with all its shortcomings, limitations, and failures. Had Prum been able to see every bird instantaneously, none of those birds would have stories.