The Big Year According to Birders

Our experts offer a very specialized critique of the major motion picture.

I wanted to critique The Big Year from a birder’s perspective. But since I’m the type of birder who, for instance, looks at a stilt’s long pink legs and is inspired to buy a pair of pink leggings, I asked two birding guides to see the film, too: Carl Howard, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency, whom I met at a birdathon (coincidentally, Howard went to high school with this film’s director, David Frankel, of Marley & Me fame), and ornithologist Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society (he’s participated in international bird counts for 35 years). Howard and Butcher would never mistake a screwball comedy for a nature documentary, yet they were game to sizing up the film—plus, how many times would these guys get a chance to go birding at the movies?

Adapted from Mark Obmascik’s best-selling book, The Big Year is a true story about three singularly obsessed men who compete to see who will be the “best birder in the world” by spotting the most species in a year (in their case, 1998). To win a “big year,” as the endeavor is called, a participant should expect to identify more than 700 species, travel 270,000 miles, and spend 270 days away from home. “It takes 100 percent of your concentration,” said Howard (he hasn’t done a big year but is enmeshed in the birding arena). Though the film is a comedy, Howard added that doing a big year is deadly serious: The winner must be ruthless, not to mention have a photographic memory, a supersonic ear, and the fortitude to brave blizzards and garbage dumps. It also helps to live near an airport. “The rest of your life—your wife, your kids—is on hold. It’s all about ego and selfishness,” he pauses. “But oh, what fun.”

Settled in plush theater seats, Howard and Butcher were happy to experience the competition vicariously. No rat-infested Quonset hut in Attu, Alaska. No careening helicopter ride through narrow mountain canyons. I was personally glad to observe the reigning big year champ, the obnoxious Kenny Bosticks (played by Owen Wilson) without having to engage him in dinner conversation, or anything else, for that matter. In the film Bosticks deserts his wife in the hospital to chase an elusive snowy owl. “Birds can lead to divorce,” Howard noted.

Both Howard and Butcher genuinely enjoyed the film and the respectful way it portrayed birders—the movie understands their goals and their culture. At the same time it excluded some aspects typical of real birding, and also took a few liberties. For example, there were no shots of the protagonists focusing binoculars, an absolute necessity in the birding arena (in a movie, it’s time-consuming and lacks narrative tension). Bosticks donned a bright pink T-shirt and lime-green pants—such sartorial flare would work only for birders who wanted to blend into a watermelon patch (khakis and camouflage are more suitable). And does anyone know actual birders who perform birdcalls for each other, as Jack Black’s character, Brad, does when wooing his love interest? “We only do that for Jay Leno,” quipped Butcher.

A true buddy flick (Steve Martin’s and Black’s characters team up against Owen Wilson’s), The Big Year portrayed women mostly as support staff, people who enjoy birds as an avocation, not as a calling. Yet in reality, women birders are as driven as male birders. Take Phoebe Snetsinger, the first person in the world to see 8,000 species. “Totally obsessed!” said Butcher. “Missed her kid’s wedding and everything. That would be a great sequel.”

Howard and Butcher agreed that the location shots, filmed in the Yukon, lent a quasi-IMAX grandeur to the nature scenes—until Martin showed up in a parka, joking, and viewers were jolted back into the spoof. Then there was the ludicrous bunting chase on Attu: Birders on bicycles nearly collide while in hot pursuit of a good sighting.

Birds, often computer-generated, were spliced into scenes like specimens in a celluloid diorama. This was wonderful—when they got it right (and let’s admit it, even when they didn’t). But Howard and Butcher couldn’t help noticing when the wrong bird turned up in the wrong habitat in the wrong season. “They had ducks on dry land,” Butcher laughed, rattling off other flights of fancy. “Early in the film they show a Swainson’s hawk in the snow, but they spend the winter in Argentina. They are not around when we have snow.” He added, “They had this great gray owl in the George Washington National Forest in Virginia, and there’s never been a record of one in [in that state].”

Each of the three times they showed a pink-footed goose, it defied nature. “They had it in a heated pool [a hot spring] on top of a snowy mountain, and that would be wrong. The pink-footed goose is found in the northeastern states, grazing with Canada geese out in agricultural fields,” said Butcher. In another gag, a female birder drags a scarf in fish guts to attract birds to the smell and is attacked by gulls. Anyone who’s seen Hitchcock’s The Birds will get the joke. “But that doesn’t happen,” said Butcher. Pause. “It might happen in Ocean City, Maryland, but the birds wouldn’t attack her.”

Birders rely on weather patterns to see what the wind blows in. In The Big Year a storm on the Gulf Coast blows in thousands of birds that kettle in the air, causing the sky to turn black. “That was ridiculous!” said Howard, with a laugh. Butcher explained why some birders found this scene the most unrealistic one in the movie: “The thing about fallouts is you don’t see the birds in the sky like that. They are often on the ground, and it’s usually one species. I’ve never seen [a fallout] like that!”

Though the film departed from reality for the sake of some jokes, Butcher and Howard agreed that it nailed some important stuff. “One thing that was real is how birders share information,” Butcher remarked. “That’s a real hallmark of the birder community.” Bosticks, for instance, calls rare bird alert hotlines for the latest sightings. Those hotlines were the forerunners of today’s list-serves, and were compiled by other birders. “Every state has a list-serve now, and people all around the country find rare birds locally and report them. So it’s the people who are finding them—the local bird finders and the guides—who tend to be the best birders in the world,” said Butcher.

The film also got another aspect right: the emotional tug that draws people to birds. In one poignant scene, Brad shows his father—a nonbirder who finds his son’s obsession effete and odd—an American golden plover (a common species) on his iPhone app and said, “My favorite bird. That’s the bird everyone underestimates.” From another actor, the line would sound overwrought; from Black, it’s all heart. “’Underachieves’ in terms of its looks—it’s gray,” Howard said, emphatically, “But what makes it stand out is its story. It flies tens of thousands of miles in a year, migrating from [North] pole to [South] pole.” Brad’s father finally comes to appreciate the sheer beauty of a bird and its will to survive.

As the credits rolled, on a split screen to the left of the scrolling names, photos of the birds on Bosticks’s record-shattering list flashed by as fast as a shuffled deck of cards. As he stared raptly at the screen, Howard pointed out, “The real birders are looking at every one of these.”