Birds, Birders, and Birding in The Big Year: What We Noticed

By Hugh Powell
October 18, 2011
great gray owl by ron kube Great Gray Owl by Ron Kube via Birdshare.

After watching The Big Year on Friday, our group convened to hash out what we thought. We liked the movie a lot, but as we talked about nitpicky details and larger themes, the reactions were wide-ranging. Among our group was one person with a life list over 3,000 species, several more experts, some casual birders, an ornithologist who doesn’t watch birds as a hobby, and a few people who work at the Lab but don’t really do any birding at all. These are some of the points we pulled out of the movie; we’d love to hear your own thoughts in the comments.

1. Despite the cutthroat competition on display, the bedrock of this movie is the inherent decency of birding. When was the last time you saw a movie about world supremacy where the dirtiest tricks involve fish chum and a little misdirection at a ferry terminal? The closest thing The Big Year has to a villain is Kenny Bostick, and even he refuses to count a Flammulated Owl after hearing a single unsatisfying hoot. Whenever people first hear of competitive birding, the hardest thing for them to believe is the honor system. But it works.

2. The movie takes care to provide details from the real birding world. Brad has a picture of a King Eider in his cubicle, and his Orioles sweatshirt matches a Baltimore Oriole poster on his wall at home. A photo of Crested Auklets adorns one wall in Bostick’s home. Stu’s corporate office has a fancy angle-eyepiece spotting scope pointed out the window. On Attu, one birder is doing the dishes with a National Geographic field guide stuffed in the back of his pants—the time-tested way to carry a field guide that’s too big for a pocket. The rich guys—Stu and Bostick—are sporting $2,000 binoculars while Brad, who’s on a budget, has a more affordable pair. The list goes on and on—please add your own favorite sightings in the comments.

3. Look for a few well-placed nods to birding legends. Anjelica Huston’s character, Annie Auklet, is modeled on veteran pelagic-trip leader Debi Shearwater. Bostick starts his Big Year in Phoebe’s Diner—an homage to the true greatest lister of all time, Phoebe Snetsinger, who died in 1999 with more than 8,000 birds on her life list. Brad finally starts to get somewhere with Ellie when he identifies her imitation of an Audubon’s Oriole. This is either a tip of the hat to John James Audubon or a bit of product placement for the National Audubon Society, or both.

4. We give most of a thumbs-up to the film’s portrayal of the enjoyment of birding. This is a tough one: Big Years are grueling (as real-life Big Year champ Sandy Komito describes in this interview) and the movie, like the book, has little choice but to race along. It does slow down for some choice scenery—birding by bicycle across Attu Island; standing in a golden sunset in South Florida; watching Bald Eagles tangle in the sky; coming upon a surprise rarity in the wet woods of the Northwest. Even an instrumental piano version of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” crops up in just the right place. On the other hand, although the CGI closeups of a few birds were delightfully detailed—Xantus’ Hummingbird’s eyestripe and gorget; Great Gray Owl’s “bow tie”—their movements were just unreal enough to jar me out of the scene. It seemed a pity that at the very moments when birds struck wonder in the characters, the audience was looking at something digital.

5. The movie gets major points for having so few outright errors, but there are occasional inaccuracies that our crowd gleefully pounced on. Eyebrows all over the theater raised at the thought of a Pink-footed Goose bathing in an alpine hot spring. Few of us believed that a Snowy Owl could really elude Bostick for so long, although this species really was Greg Miller’s nemesis bird in the book. Nevertheless, Snowy Owls are one of the few diurnal owls, and we thought Owen Wilson would’ve had better luck looking for them in the daytime. A molting American Goldfinch makes for a great moment with Stu and his grandson, but if you ask our own David Bonter, who leads Project FeederWatch, it was far too late in the season for that bird to be wearing anything but full summer yellow. We all loved the device of handwritten bird sightings appearing as the camera panned across Attu, although we doubted whether the birders had really come all that way to tick a Semipalmated Plover or Northern Shoveler. On High Island, Stu and Brad see an Indigo Bunting moments before Bostick calls out a Blue Grosbeak. As with a real birding trip, it’s possible he was looking at a grosbeak while the rest of us were watching the bunting, but it still made us wonder. And in the flipbook of bird photos during the credits, did anyone notice a nighthawk in with the hawks? A couple of waterthrushes in with the thrushes? And there were more—send us your own favorites in the comments.

6. We would’ve loved to see the stars actually move like birders. Actors prepare for other parts by taking ballet lessons, honing accents, practicing kung fu—even learning to write convincing calculus on a chalkboard. So I wish these actors could have captured some of the movements that all birders learn: we stop walking before we start looking through our binoculars; we hold our arms beneath our binoculars, supporting them, instead of elbows outspread; our upper bodies make tiny, smooth adjustments as we try to keep our focus on a sparrow moving through the undergrowth.

7. Birders are a more diverse lot than the movie let on. The main characters show almost no interest in conservation or environmentalism. That’s actually true for some “twitchers,” for whom the main interest is putting tick marks next to the names of birds on their list. But many birders watch because of the joy it brings and learn about environmental issues along the way. And although top birders do tend to be male, overall the birding world has more women than men in it (read more on birding’s gender roles in this article by one of our scientists). Inspirational people like John C. Robinson and programs like Celebrate Urban Birds are encouraging people of all backgrounds and cultures to take up birding. The characters were quick to throw around phrases like “greatest birder in the world”—and though this is in keeping with their own viewpoints as obsessed listers, there are many superlative birders who never get drawn into competition.

8. Even though it’s set in the present day, the movie doesn’t seem to realize how much birders use the Internet. The movie’s plot gets pushed forward in a few places by a birder-blogger, but otherwise it’s as if the Internet didn’t exist. The main characters are still calling in to a rare bird alert for tips. They should have checked our free eBird program, which has a map-based interface and will even send alerts when someone reports a bird you want to see. Even better, an app called Birdseye makes that information accessible from an iPhone—and gives driving directions. Elsewhere, birdingonthe.net compiles the hundreds of email listservs for local birding groups.

9. Birding by ear is even more important than the movie shows. Brad’s special talent is his “golden ear”—he can identify any species of bird by sound alone. While people’s skills vary, all top-notch birders depend greatly on their ears to find and identify birds. In the movie, Brad mainly identifies other birders’ impressions of birds. While this offers up the amusing sight of birders stretching their necks, waggling their heads, and puffing out their cheeks, most of us quiz each other by playing actual bird recordings. In my opinion, having the ability to mimic a Whimbrel or Greater Roadrunner might be more impressive than the ability to identify it. I would have liked a CSI-like slo-mo shot where a single chip note issues from the canopy and we see it transformed into a spectrogram, then cross-checked against a range of possibilities before Brad calls out the ID.

10. Finally, in the category of things in the movie that we wish were true: What would it be like to live in a world where you can turn on the weather and hear the announcers talking about Pin-tailed Snipe and Eurasian Greenfinches? Where TV news crews scramble to the scene of a fallout so they can explain migration biology to the general public? Just another Hollywood dream world, I guess.

If you liked the movie, check out these posts for more: