November 3, 2011
Great Gray Owl this is the one Kenny Bostick missed
Great Gray Owl - This is the one Kenny Bostick missed

A book review and a movie review in this column within a span of six weeks?  This is becoming the culture column!  When I first heard a movie was being made of Mark Obmascik’s 2004 book, The Big Year, I was skeptical because the lead actors, Owen Wilson, Jack Black, and Steve Martin, are known primarily for their comedy roles.  As a British birder says in the movie, “Only Americans could turn birding into competition,” and that’s a big enough issue without playing it for slapstick.

Not to worry, I was pleasantly surprised.  Though one of the movie’s major backstories is a wholesale invention, and a few of the bird sights and sounds are so egregiously wrong that knowledgeable birders will want to gag, the characterizations of the three principals are dead on with both the book and the real life events which led to the book.  This I know because one of the three is an acquaintance of mine, I spent a few years myself as a “chaser,” and I’ve read the book.

To my knowledge The Big Year is the first full length, mainstream movie made about birding.  This alone should make it a hit with birders, and they’ll readily recognize the nuances of anticipation, excitement, and frustration we all encounter in this “adult treasure hunt.”  For non-birders, the movie does an excellent job of portraying, though perhaps not explaining, the obsessiveness that lurks at the far end of the listing spectrum.

A Pink-footed Goose alone in a snowmelt puddle on an alpine mountain in winter?  Nope.  A Barred Owl calling in southern Arizona?  Not a chance.  And Sandy Komito, the real life 1998 Big Year leader, was sixty something and happily married to his first and only wife, not a forty year old jerk working on dirty tricks and his third wife, his first two marriages failed because of his obsession.  These are filmmakers’ liberties which may turn off birders but will probably enhance the total movie experience for the uninitiated.

There are two things in the film, however, that trouble me about how it portrays the birding scene, and evidence of its authenticity comes with the realization that both trouble me about real life birding as well.  The first is easily explained.  The Big Year implies that the winner is the best birder.  In fact, there is ZERO correlation between being a “good” birder and having a big list.  A big list takes time and money, period.  The “best” birders recognize every bird and all its plumages and calls, and many of them don’t even keep lists.  A Big Year is an accomplishment and it’s a lot of fun, but let’s call it what it is--an ego trip.  Unless no one else knows it’s going on.

Secondly, and corollary, remember what the Brit said bout American birding.  Let’s add the word “males” after “American” and examine what birding should be.  Birding should be a joyful exploration of the natural world and its wonders.  Doing it as a member of a group can certainly enhance the experience, but I’m not at all sure making it competitive does.  I’ve never heard of a female doing a Big Year.  Think about it.