Birder or not, ‘The Big Year’ is worth seeing

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About a year ago, when I heard Hollywood was making a movie of Mark Obmascik s 2004 book, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, I worried.

I feared it would make a joke of birders and birding. Remember Jane Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies? When I heard the three stars of the film were to be Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black, I worried even more. All are great comic actors.

My wife and I saw The Big Year (directed by David Frankel, 99 minutes) last week, and we loved it. I admit, I can’t be an objective observer because I really wanted to like this movie. I give it three stars (out of four).

Clearly the movie targets birders. And every comment I read from birders has been positive. I just hope the nonbirding public gives it a chance.

Family appropriate

The Big Year is a rare film, and not just because of the subject matter. It is a gentle, light-hearted comedy that lacks foul language, bathroom humor and violence. I suspect these elements find their way into many movies because they require little original thought.

The Big Year is a fictional version of the true story of three men who set out in 1998 to have a big year. A big year is a competition, usually with oneself, to see or hear as many species of birds as possible in a single calendar year. To do it seriously requires free time, an understanding family, and deep pockets.

The winner set a record, 745 species, that will probably never be broken. I won’t reveal which man wins, but a confluence of unusual environmental conditions resulted in many rare birds reaching North America in 1998. It was the birding world’s perfect storm.

Big years can also be done on a smaller scale. Far more birders set out to tally the number of species seen in backyards, city parks, counties, or states than in the entire U.S.

When 1998 began, the three main characters began their big years independently, but as the year progressed, they learned they were competing with each other. Their efforts to keep tabs on each other are among the better scenes in the film.

Highlights

Though there are a few egregious ornithological errors on screen, they don’t matter. It’s more about people following their dreams, doing what they love, and enjoying birds. Here are a few highlights of the film to anticipate:

• At one point, the Martin and Black characters take a spectacular helicopter ride through Nevada’s Ruby Mountains that will leave you queasy and breathless. The goal is to see a Himalayan snowcock.

• The scene at the Brownsville, Texas, garbage dump will mystify non-birders, but it’s the place top go for Mexican specialties such as Mexican crow. Birders also know sewage ponds can be great birding spots, but I don’t recall any featured in the film.

• Anjelica Huston portrays Annie Auklet, a tough broad, West Coast, off-shore birding tour operator. The character is based on Debi Shearwater, the county’s best known sea bird tour leader. Annie reveals that she, like Debi, legally changed her name for professional reasons.

• Jim Parsons (Sheldon from television’s Big Bang Theory) is perfectly cast as a busybody birding blogger.

• One of the funniest storylines involves a newlywed couple on their honeymoon on a birding trip to Attu. Attu is a remote island on the far end of Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain. It’s a hot spot for Asian rarities, but living conditions are primitive.

He’s a birder; she is not. Watch for how she tries to clean an expensive, soiled scarf.

• Finally, the footage of a bald eagle courtship flight is worth the price of admission. It is exhilarating. It’s also the reason I’ll buy the DVD when it is released.

I can’t imagine any birder not loving this film, but I hope non-birders also flock to theaters. If nothing else, The Big Year offers a realistic peek into the world of serious birders. See it, and send me comments.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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