Ever since Christopher Guest made Best in Show, I’ve longed for his troupe to make a movie about competitive birding. I thought the perfect vehicle would be a movie about a Big Day—probably the World Series of Birding, which takes place in New Jersey every year. The movie would show the teams preparing and then getting through the day. I cringe at the thought of Eugene Levy using his broad physical humor to make fun of a particularly nerdy type of birder, mainly because I know one nerdy birder that he could do a spot-on imitation of. There’d be the cutthroat competitors who keep every sighting close to their vest and are invariably among the winners, and the teams who share tips about every rarity with anyone they encounter and invariably never win. There’d be the teams who hear a single note or sight a bird for barely a second and race on—one of these teams is invariably the winner—and teams who stop and admire too many beautiful birds for too long—invariably not among the winners. It would have been so fun to see what kinds of birders Guest, Levy, Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgens, and the rest came up with.
My fantasy movie was never realized, but something even better is in theaters right now, in the form of The Big Year. Based on the book by Mark Obmascik, this movie captures the essence of three birders roughly based on three real men who, when they each independently realized that El Nino was likely to produce conditions for an amazing array of rarities to turn up in 1998, set out to see the most species ever recorded in a single year in North America. I’ll talk specifically about the movie tomorrow, but first want to provide listeners with a bit of history about what Big Years are all about.
Big Years are said to have originated in a roundabout way by Roger Tory Peterson and British ornithologist James Fisher. Peterson wanted to show off America’s fabulous birdlife to his friend, and so in April 1953, the two men embarked on a 100-day, 30,000-mile road trip around the continent recounted in the book Wild America. Thanks to that stupendous experience, Peterson tallied a total of 572 species for 1953. But he had not been the first to set a record for the number of species seen in North America in a single year. Guy Emerson, a businessman, timed his business trips to coincide with ideal times for birding in various areas of the U.S. In 1939, he set a personal record of 497. This was the number Peterson set out to beat in 1953 and kept track of throughout his adventure with Fisher, apparently not realizing that in 1952, Bob Smart had already set a new record of 510 species [according to Wikipedia. According to The Pettingell Book of Birding Records, Smart saw 515.] Peterson beat that record substantially, but his 572 only stood for three years. In 1956, a 25-year-old Englishman named Stuart Keith followed Peterson and Fisher’s route and tallied 598. This record stood for 15 years.
In 1969, the American Birding Association was born. Its inaugural edition of Birding magazine set ground rules for competitive birding in North America, defining the official ABA area as the 49 continental states and Canada, excluding Baja California, which Peterson and Fisher had spent time in. In 1971, 18-year-old Ted Parker, in his last year of high school, managed to get 626 species all within the ABA area, which he announced in the 1972 issue of Birding. That was like throwing down the gauntlet. In 1973, two different birders broke his record. Floyd Murdoch got 669 in the ABA area. Kenn Kaufman got a total of 671, but his number included 5 species seen only in Baja California—his ABA list was 666. Kaufman recounted the adventure in an extraordinary book, Kingbird Highway, which is as much a coming-of-age memoir as a birding adventure book.
Murdoch’s ABA area record was broken by James Vardaman, who saw 699 in 1979. That record was toppled four years later by former Duluth doctor Benton Basham, who tallied 710 in 1983, including a Boreal Owl along the Gunflint Trail. Basham had asked Kim Eckert to take him to see one, and Kim invited me and a couple of other lucky birders along. I’ll never forget that night—northern lights were streaming, an American Woodcock was alighting on the road right near us during interludes in his skydance, and Boreal Owl calls rang out, a thrilling sound for all of us, and filling me with the kind of joy Basham must have felt when he topped 700. In 1987, Sandy Komito broke that record with 721. He broke his own record with 745 in 1998—a record that still stands, and the feat recounted in Obmascik’s book, The Big Year. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the movie.
They needn’t have worried. There are certainly secondary characters in The Big Year who think birding is stupid, and you can’t blame them when these competing birders toss aside important business meetings and even one marriage when a rare bird is at stake. But the birders in The Big Year are unapologetic about their passion. To them, the joy of birding and the urge to break the record for the most birds seen in North America in a single year is as fundamental as is James Lovell’s yearning to reach the moon in Apollo 13 or the passion for fine wine by the characters in the movie Sideways. Birds and birding are integral to the movie, but the themes of the movie are more about passion and competition, the weird kinds of bonds that draw even heated contenders together, and what things are or are not worth sacrificing to reach a goal.
From the moment The Big Year starts, on New Year’s Day with Owen Wilson’s character in a remote park in Arizona to see a hard-to-get rarity, a Nutting’s Flycatcher, I was totally engaged in the movie. Steve Martin’s character celebrates a more family-oriented New Years, with toasts at midnight and then a family skiing outing, though he does stop a few times to add some birds to his year list. Jack Black’s character was stuck at work, and he only got a single bird out the window of his downtown office. As with the real men who inspired the movie characters, Steve Martin’s and Owen Wilson’s characters were very wealthy, and Jack Black’s had very little money and was just getting over a painful divorce. You quickly discern that it takes a lot of money to do a Big Year, and that some birders are as cutthroat as some contenders in sports. When a very rare tropical hummingbird turns up at a backyard feeder, Steve Martin gets there first and dutifully rings the doorbell and patiently waits for the homeowner to give him a key to her gate, politely submitting to a minute of chit chat, while Owen Wilson simply jumps over her fence and is in and out while Martin is still stuck at the door. A great many birders in the film are deeply resentful of Wilson’s character for how cutthroat he is in competition. But he is rather like the New York Yankees—he has way more money than most birders, makes the most of it, and can make life hell for some birders, yet despite their resentment, they can’t help but be regaled by his amazing experiences and give him plenty of begrudging respect along with resentment and even hatred.
The movie has some beautiful and touching moments. All three contenders stop, spellbound, gazing as courting Bald Eagles clasp talons in their aerial dance. And the movie has the sweetest scene involving a Great Gray Owl that I could imagine, though the owl moves more like an animatronic rather than a real flesh-and-blood owl.
The movie ends with photos of birds in rapid fire to the accompaniment of the song “This Could All Be Yours”—as lovely an invitation to start birding as I could imagine. The Big Year is a splendid movie for birders, and based on comments of non-birders I’ve talked to who saw it, plenty fun for regular people, too.