Bird Watcher's General Store

The Big Year Birding Movie

Dear Bird Folks,

Iíve seen ads for a new Steve Martin movie thatís supposed to be about bird watching. The movie is called The Big Year. Is it actually about bird watching? And if so, why is it called The Big Year? That doesnít sound very ďbirdieĒ to me. ĖLance, Albany, NY

I donít blame you, Lance,

I donít blame you for being confused. Iíve seen those same ads and Iím also unclear about the movieÖand Iím in it. Thatís right. Iím in this movie. Well, some of my stuff is in it. Let me explain. About a year and half ago I received an e-mail from 20th Century Fox. They wanted to buy lots and lots of bird stuff (books, T-shirts, artwork, etc.). I was suspicious at first and almost deleted the e-mail. After all, I had just sent $500 to help a Nigerian prince and never even received a thank you card. But it turned out that 20th Century Fox was really, truly making a movie about birding and they wanted to buy a lot of our merchandise to use as props. Cool beans!

Click here to see what we saw of ours in The Big Year.

The Big Year is a movie, based on the book of the same name by Mark Obmascik. Itís also a true story. In the birding world, when some one goes for a ďbig year,Ē he or she will try to see as many different birds as possible over the course of 365 days. This is not that unusual. Each year lots of birders try to do this. It helps motivate them to do more birding. Itís no different than bookworms trying to see how many books they can read in a year or caffeine freaks trying to see how many different Starbucks they can visit. In fact, my wife has her own idea of big year. She tries to see how many dresses she can buy and each year she sets a new personal best. Occasionally, birders take a big year to an extreme. Instead of going birding whenever they have free time, they go even when they donít have free time. Some of them donít go to work or to school or attend birthday parties. They become obsessed with trying to see more birds in a year than anyone ever has. They want to set a record. In this one particular year, 1998 (the year the book covers), there wasnít just one crazy birder out there trying to set the record - there were three of them, and they were all trying out do each other.

Whatís odd about competitive birding is that there is no real prize at the end. Thereís no cash reward or free Cadillac given to the winner. Birders willingly travel thousands of miles, max out their credit cards, endure seasickness and clouds of biting insects merely to gain the admiration of people who are just as whacky as they are. Thatís all. Right now you might be thinking, ďThese people are idiots,Ē and you wouldnít be far off. But competitive birders are no more idiotic than the folks who risk their lives climbing Mt. Everest or the ones who spend months hiking the Appalachian Trail. Their only reward is a photo with a flag or a high five from other smelly hikers. All of these people might be a little crazy, but they could think the same thing about those of us who lie on the beach each summer or sit inside all winter watching soaps. At least at the end of it all they have a story to tell.

The other strange thing about a big year is that there are no officials. Thereís no bird umpire overseeing everything. Itís all on the honor system. Since there is no real reward, there is no reason to lie. Donít forget, these people really like birds and are proud of what they can do. Itís not like we are talking about a bunch of fat, fried chicken-eating baseball players, who are only in it for the money. Seeing birds is what these people live for.

About the movie: In addition to Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black are also in the film. Each one plays a birder who is trying to set the record for seeing the most birds in North America in a single year. Before the movie was released, it was obvious the actors werenít comfortable being in a ďbird movie.Ē During interviews all three of them seemed almost embarrassed about playing bird watchers. Each one spoke awkwardly, like he had just done a commercial for diarrhea medicine. Even 20th Century Fox didnít want to highlight the birding part, which explains why the ads arenít very ďbirdie.Ē What a bunch of chickens. If they make a slasher film, everyone is okay with it. But make a movie about bird watching and suddenly it becomes the new ďdonít ask, donít tell.Ē Come on Fox. U.S. Fish and Wildlife says there are 48 million birders in the country. How many slashers do you know?

As you can imagine, Lance, Iíve already seen the movie. Itís not the crazy farce you might expect from the three stars. Itís actually a sweet story about three guys with complicated lives, who are driven to do something that many folks find a bit odd. To the filmmakerís credit, the birders werenít stereotyped or turned into goofballs. Thatís good. Also, the scenery is drop dead gorgeous, which makes me feel bad for the people who spend the winter inside watching soaps. Finally, a few of the props we sent them, including my book, Why Donít Woodpeckers Get Headaches?, actually made it on to the big screen. (You probably heard my screams in Albany.) All this talk of birding makes me think that I should go for my own big year. Maybe Iíll start tomorrow. No, wait. Tomorrow is birdseed delivery day. Perhaps the next day. Nope, I have to take my wife dress shopping. Man, I hate reality.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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