There are approximately 196,940,000 square miles on the earth’s surface inhabited by about 9,000 species of birds—and incredibly, G. (for George) Stuart Keith has personally eyeballed 5,453 of them. That’s some 500 more than his nearest competitor, and the achievement makes Keith the greatest bird-watcher of all time. But at the age of 47, he is not ready to hang it up yet—his binoculars, that is. He is aiming at what’s called a “life list” of 6,000.
Keith and his fellow practitioners (at least one million in the U.S. alone) call themselves “birders” rather than “bird-watchers,” a term they regard as old-fashioned and passive. In the past, says Keith, “bird-watchers were usually figures of fun for cartoonists who drew them with pith helmets and knobby knees or as little old ladies in tennis shoes. Today’s birders are young, tough guys burning up the country.”
An Englishman who has lived in the U.S. since 1958, Keith was 15 when his parents gave him a pair of field glasses for spotting planes. He spied a rook instead, was fascinated to study the bird close up and thus began a quest that has taken him through Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas. He was charged by a hippo in Uganda, broke his collarbone in a Land-Rover accident in the Malagasy Republic and was bitten by an aggressive male seal defending his territory in the Pribilof Islands off Alaska. The leg wound required 30 stitches.
Keith was only 25 when he became birding’s equivalent of rookie of the year with a marathon 12-month tour of the U.S. and Canada during which he observed 594 species. Since then the milestones in his career, Keith says, include his 4,000th bird (a uniform finch in Argentina) and his 5,000th (a bar-breasted honeyeater in Australia). He has also spotted the extremely rare Rodrigues warbler on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean and the seldom-seen boreal owl on an island in Lake Ontario.
Some species are inaccessible to most birders. Travel in China and the Soviet Union is difficult, for example. In the Himalayas or Amazon basin, it is all but impossible to get to some birds. But elsewhere there are many rarities Keith yearns to find. “The harpy eagle in South America is one,” he says. “In the Philippines there’s the world’s largest bird of prey, the monkey-eating eagle, of which there are probably only 50 pairs left. And I’d very much like to see the great argus pheasant of Malaysia and the Congo peacock in Africa.”
Although the honor system governs birding (the sighting has to be made in the wild and “probables” are not counted), Keith estimates 80 percent of the birds on his list are verifiable by witnesses. “He’s extremely conscientious about not identifying a bird unless he’s absolutely sure of it,” says James Tucker, director of the 4,000-member American Birding Association. “Stuart is an English gentleman who characterizes both the profession of ornithology and the hobby of birding to the ultimate degree.”
Keith works as a resident ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York although he never actually studied the subject. After serving with the British army in Korea (where he managed some birding too—”You could always pretend you were looking for enemy positions”), he studied classics at Oxford, married an American in 1958 and planned to become a stockbroker. When his New York father-in-law advised him instead to “do something you like,” Keith quit Wall Street and joined the staff of the museum. “I inherited a little money from my grandmother,” he explains. “Enough to keep me going in a fairly simple style.”
Keith and his second wife, Sally, 44, a high school teacher, live in northern New Jersey. He is busy writing two avian guides (he’s a world authority on rails, cranes and Indian Ocean birds) and a memoir titled The Joy of Birding (“my publisher’s idea”). The Keiths have a dog but no pet birds. He hasn’t owned one of those since he was 5.