The Birdman of Texas

Over the course of six decades, Victor Emanuel has seen the rare Eskimo Curlew and the exotic Horned Guan, traveled the globe with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, and taught George W. Bush the joy of not shooting a bird. But some days he’s happy to just contemplate the lowly grackle.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

Looking back, I don’t think my initial reaction to Victor Emanuel was out of line. I first encountered his name years ago, when George Plimpton, who was giving a reading at the Texas Book Festival, spotted a trim, friendly-looking man entering the room. Plimpton beamed as if the president of the United States had just sauntered in. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he bellowed, “Victor Emanuel!” If memory serves, Plimpton tried to get the audience to applaud. Not recognizing the name, I leaned over to a colleague sitting nearby. “Who is that?” I asked. “He’s a birding expert,” she said. My response was something along the lines of “Who cares?”

As it turns out, plenty of people. Over the years, Emanuel has gone birding with a wide variety of high-profile clients, among them Laura Bush, Prince Philip, filmmaker Terrence Malick, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and former U.S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson. He has traveled with the famed naturalist Peter Matthiessen for many years and appears in Matthiessen’s books The Birds of Heaven and End of the of Earth.

Eleven years ago, George W. Bush was on the campaign trail in Cleveland, Ohio, and told the crowd about an epiphany he had had after inviting Emanuel to his ranch in Crawford. “You know what you ought to do?” Emanuel had told him. “You ought to go down and look at the birds.” Bush had replied, “I’m a bird-shooter. That’s all I’ve done as a kid—you know, I shoot ’em.” On that occasion, however, he just looked at the birds. Years later, standing at the lectern, he gave voice to a sentiment that has been expressed by many people, no doubt with a hint of bewilderment: “So I went birding with Victor Emanuel, and it was fabulous.”

None of this is to imply that Emanuel is a birder to the stars; he’ll bird with anybody. And besides, in birding circles it is Emanuel—not the company he keeps—who is the star. Thomas Hornbein, who was part of the first expedition to climb Mount Everest by the West Ridge route, told me, “I have a fair bit of notoriety in mountaineering, and frequently people will recognize me. When I’m with Vic, the roles are reversed.”

Though Emanuel, who lives in Austin, operates one of the oldest ecology tour companies in the world, that alone doesn’t account for his renown. Nor is it the intensity of his obsession with birds that draws people to him; many other die-hard birders are just as obsessed. Emanuel can bombard people with statistics and avian trivia, but that isn’t the source of his appeal either. What he offers is different, and hard to define. There’s something about Victor Emanuel that will cause a random hiker to approach him and say, “Mr. Emanuel, there is a pygmy owl about a hundred yards back up the trail, and it would mean so much to me if I could show it to you.” And then, upon returning home, brag that he went birding with Victor Emanuel. And that it was fabulous.

Despite some hearing loss that occurred in childhood, Victor Emanuel is a remarkable guide. Roger Tory Peterson, who wrote and illustrated a widely read series of birding field guides, once suggested that Emanuel and another Austin tour guide, Rose Ann Rowlett, have “the sharpest eyes in Texas,” capable of identifying a bird at a glance. It’s conceivable, of course, that Emanuel is simply so familiar with the landscape that he just knows where a certain bird is likely to be. “Victor has a superb memory in regards to all the rivers and all the birds and all the people he has met,” said one friend. On a second trip to a far-flung locale, for example, he will remember that there’s a bend in the road just ahead with a fence post that’s ideal for, say, a white-tailed hawk to stop and rest and, upon rounding the corner, will see that a white-tailed hawk agreed.

One day last fall he and I patrolled an Austin park, scanning the perimeter for wildlife. Emanuel is seventy and bald on top, with a half-moon of white hair hugging the back and sides of his head. He walks at a good clip and dresses as if modeling for an REI catalog. A few minutes into our tour he spotted a flash in a tree. Quickly, he brought his binoculars to his eyes. “Ruby-crowned kinglet up there,” he said. “That tiny thing flitting around up there is a bird that may have come from Canada. See it there? Upside down? It’s called a ruby-crowned kinglet, and it’s a tiny little bird. Flits around. Very flitty. One of the things it eats is spider eggs.” I looked through my binoculars and saw a grayish-yellow bird that resembled a sleeker version of a sparrow. “There it is. Very flitty. See how it flits its wings a lot? That’s typical. If you learn the behavior you don’t even have to look at it. Nervous little bird.” I tried to follow the bird as it moved around. Emanuel continued watching it without his binoculars. “You might wonder, Why is it called ruby-crowned? Well, under the feathers on top of its head

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