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The Big Year: A College Student’s Review

By Anna Autilio, Cornell sophomore  
Sharp-shinned Hawk in flight
Sharp-shinned Hawk by Laurie-B via Birdshare.

I am not a birder, though my friends will disagree when I slow the car subconsciously in reverence for a passing hawk or vulture. I personally feel you are not human if you don’t pause to admire a male cardinal streaking across the winter landscape. Still, I can perhaps understand the draw of birding more than the typical Jack Black fan who goes to see “The Big Year,” a comedy about extreme birding. I own a handful of field guides, but I don’t keep a life list, so I was very interested to see how competitive birding, this unique microcosm of passionate, obsessive people, was depicted.

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My own experience with birding and birders really comes from two weeks I spent on Hog Island at the Maine Audubon Society’s Coastal Bird Studies Camp when I was a high school sophomore. I remember distinctly standing on the dock, before camp had even begun, and my fellow campers had already intimidated me. No older than me, they talked about places they’d been and birds they’d seen that I had never heard of before—Soras, mousebirds, Wekas, and Spotted Shags. I thought I knew something about birds, and I’d been fascinated by them ever since my parents stuck a feeder in the ground right outside our kitchen window when I was 11. Now these teenagers, to whom I’d only just been introduced, were far beyond me.

But they had just as passionate an interest in animals and nature as I did. I don’t think I understood then what I was gaining from them. We ate dinner with Steve Kress, the man who brought nesting Atlantic Puffins back to Maine in the 1970s, watched Scott Weidensaul and Sara Morris band birds at 5:30 in the morning, and played with the parabolic microphone of Macaulay Library audio curator Greg Budney (by all rushing at it yelling while he had the headphones on). We took hiking trips around the island, through swamps on the mainland, and into Acadia National Park.

All the while, my fellow campers awed me with their knowledge. I loved talking to them, living with them, laughing with them, and though I knew I couldn’t tell you whether that speck in the sky was a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s, and that I simply would never be able to distinguish between warbler calls, I had found a world of people interested in nature just like me.

“The Big Year” takes the viewer into a world quite different from this—the world of competitive birding—but it doesn’t lose sight of what really matters to most birders—the birds themselves. In a scene on Attu Island, Black’s character spots two Bald Eagles in the middle of a talon-locked, free-fall mating display. Owen Wilson’s character dismisses it. “Bald Eagles? We all got those five months ago.” But he does stay to watch the spectacular sight. That is my view of birding, or what birding should be. It’s one of the few contests in which competitors can and willingly do stand back, for a moment at least, to admire nature working.

When the movie gets around to its most important point, of why birders do what they do, it makes it beautifully—a moment Black’s character shares with his father, who has not been supportive of his son’s money-draining expedition to see birds. But one day he relents, going with his son on a walk in their snowy, wooded backyard, and begins to understand how much his son has gained from this experience—and it’s not just a check mark on a list.

I think this is the real reason birders are so obsessed. Birds are not only right in our backyards, but they are diverse, beautiful, intelligent, and can do at least one thing humans have always strived to do—fly. The film provides the uninitiated (and potential?) birder with a window into a world that may seem full of people with binoculars glued to their faces, but is actually filled with true passion, intellect, and heart. I recommend to anyone who thinks they might be even remotely interested in birds or birding to see this film and to share that one great thing: passion for birds.

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

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library