Tucson Audubon had the chance to interview Liscum when we discovered that he had led a very interesting life. He was one of the founders of Maricopa Audubon and had seen over 5,000 bird species.
Unfortunately, Liscum died May 17, 2011, shortly after this conversation.
Thanks to Mich Coker for the questions and Linda Pizzuto for conducting the interview.
When did you first get interested in birding?
When I was five years old I liked to visit all the subways in New York City. My mom thought that was unhealthy and wanted to get me interested in other things so she bought my first book about birds. It was just a standard bird book. I was fascinated and thus began my lifetime interest in birding.
How did that interest grow into a lifetime journey into some of the farthest corners of the Earth?
I started buying books about birds in remote places in the world never thinking I’d actually visit these places. After WWII I started thinking about traveling. There was an explosion in travel after the war. Some of the first trips (maybe one out of ten) I took were divided tours where the men would go birding and someone else would take the women on other excursions. When I was a child I’d go to museums and zoos to see the birds and was quite intrigued. Many of the birds were from different parts of the world and I thought “Gee, I’d like to go there.”
Where was the most remote location you visited in search of birds?
The most remote location was in the Himalayan Mountains. As a side note I also visited ham radio operators in a lot of these countries. We had to get a permit to go into certain areas. We started walking and before long we were being shot at because of the revolution going on at the time. Fortunately no one was injured. There have been cases where birders have been shot. On the Tibetan border we could see Mt. Everest. We slept three to a room and fully clothed because it was so cold. The nearest bathroom was outdoors and down a hill do you avoided going as much as possible. Many explorers used this place as a base camp. In India there was a train that was so small they called it the “Toy Train.” We didn’t take it up because it was so slow but took it partially on the way down just to say we’d taken it. The tour leader would take us right through the bush even when trails were just a few yards away. He was quite controlling. He and I got into many battles so he wrote me a note telling me not to join anymore of his trips. I wrote back and never heard back from him. Our driver liked to show off and he drove like crazy.
What were you looking for specifically?
Did you see it/them?
Appears that you've visited several far-flung areas not know for their
safety or political stability. What was the most challenging trip you took in search of birds?
Refer to the story in the Himalayans and the one in Africa.
What species or species group has held the greatest appeal to you as a
Pheasants were of great interest to me. When I was a little boy I dreamt of a silver one not knowing there actually were any. I saw them in India.
Is there a particular bird, or birding experience, that you remember even more fondly than all others? If so, what?
My trip to Australia was quite interesting. I saw over 500 species. We were with a famous tour leader named Orville Crowder who was a pioneer in birding trips. He and I had a game to see who could stay ahead in counting birds and I did. He didn’t like that. He was a real character. He never dressed well and was quite full of himself. He was recently written up in one of the birding magazines. He died of a heart attack just before one of our tours. There’s a place in Southern Australia that many people come to to watch several hundred penguins arrive to spend the night.
We saw in one book that you had managed to collect a feather from a
Ruwenzori Turaco. Do you remember that? Did you see that bird?
Yes. We had to walk in a stream two or three hours to get to it.
I think it was in Oct/Nov of 1976.
What was your trip through Central Africa like in that year?
One day we had to walk in a stream for quite a long distance to get to the place we wanted to be. We had to wear boots and carry our shoes over our shoulders. One particular place had a rare bird that nested practically in the stream. We had to sit there two to three hours before the bird would stick its head out. One of the guys on the tour fell asleep and missed it. The bird was a yellow-headed rock fowl. I was in Africa several times. On some of my trips to Africa we would use elephants to get to our destinations. In 1977 I was there when Idi Amin captured an airplane of American (a side note: Linda’s mother and stepdad were among the Americans captured). Our tour leader came in and told us what was going on. One of my trips to Africa was six weeks and one was a month. While in South Africa a revolution was imminent and my wife had seen enough and wanted to go home. She got a ride to the nearest big city and went home but I stayed because I wanted to see more birds. A huge group of Americans went home. The place we stayed was surrounded by armed guards because the crime rate was so high. On one of our trip to Africa we went to Victoria Falls birding.
Do you have a favorite birding destination that you visited again and again?
We went to Carmel several years in a row. I like it because of the birds (over 100 identified) and because of the great food. We also went to London several times. Frequently it was a starting point for a birding trip elsewhere but we combined vacation and birding while in London. I really don’t have a favorite because I enjoyed most of my trips; however, Colombia was not one of them because of the tour guide. He would take us out and keep us out for more hours than the group wanted and take us through difficult to reach places through the bush. He lost his luggage and we all had to go shopping. Most of us cut the tour short but a few stayed on and they told me that there luggage was lost as well. Too many things went wrong while we were there. It was physically rough and the tour leader didn’t care at all about the comfort of the group.
Do you have a "nemesis bird" (a species you have sought many times but not yet seen)?
In South America there was a night parrot I never saw. It may be extinct now.
It appears you may have crossed paths with some of the world's premier birders and/or ornithologists. Whom have you encountered during your travels? Any memorable experiences with those individuals?
Orville Crowder and Don Turner. In Australia four of the best birders in the world but unfortunately can’t remember their names. I’ve met lots of famous birder and ornithologists. Look through the blue books that I gave you.
Describe a humorous, ironic, or bizarre experience you had while birding the world.
Again, while in Australia, I was asked to write an article about a famous ham radio operator whose nickname was Tubby. He was also a birder. I wrote the article for the Adelaide newspaper and while in the airport getting ready to go on a day trip to an island for birding ran into Tubby. He asked if my name was Liscum. Also, someone wrote an article about me because Australians at that time couldn’t believe that an American would come all the way to Australia just to look at birds. By writing this article they wanted to bring light to conservation in Australia. Our tour leader would sometimes take us out at 5 am and not bring us back until 9 pm.
Any idea how many species you have seen?
A bit over 5,000.
Do you have an opinion about local Audubon societies and the role they play in birding/conservation? Any good experiences with an Audubon society that you'd like to share?
Yes, I think they do a good job helping others get interested in birds. The more birders, the more money. They are a powerful lobby for conservation and have more political power.
Why is birding an important part of your life?
It was a hobby. It took me away from the humdrum of daily life and transported me into another world and I got to meet some very interesting people and many interesting parts of the world. A lot of men met their wives on birding tours. Not me however.
How has your relationship with birds and the natural world enriched your life?
It’s given me endless hours of pleasure as well as giving me purpose in life to do good. (Liscum had has given considerable donations to Nature Conservancy)
Liscum's considerable book collection enhanced Tucson Audubon's member libary with hundreds of out-of-print and hard to find titles, all about birds and birding with subject matter spanning the entire globe. We are always looking for book donations to add to our growing library, so if you have books you'd like to donate, please do! As always, most of the books in the library are available for check-out by TAS members.