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The Big Year: Time To Dance!

2011-10-15 TBY Liz Mark Jeff
Liz and me flanking Mark Obmascik, author of the book, The Big Year, outside the theater showing the film. Man, I can really hear that robin well through Steve/Stu’s binoculars!

Well, we did it. Liz and I went to see The Big Year movie twice in one day. First, in a nearly-empty theater in Colorado Springs at 12:01 AM Friday. Then, not quite 20 hours later, in a packed house in downtown Denver. Moreover, the house was packed with the author of The Big Year book, Mark Obmascik, and several dozen of his family and friends. That’s a hugely stacked deck, of course. All those folks were naturally pulling for Mark and his book that just got made into a movie.

Obmascik family sign
But the crowd also included folks in off the street, at least a couple of whom I heard remarking on the way out that they had no idea that the film involved birding in any way when they came in, but their take was overwhelmingly positive.

I should also note that relatively few of the audience appeared to be birders, and there was little obvious reaction to the intentional birding jokes and accidental birding-related missteps that birders would catch. These people were watching it as just a movie. A story, that included the plot element of birding, about which they knew little. And they liked it. No, they loved it. They were diverse in age, too. Lots of younger folks.

And while you might easily expect that those two viewings would feel pretty different, I was more than a little surprised by just how different the two experiences actually were for me.

To put it as plainly and directly as I can, I liked the movie both times. A lot. But the second time, I could actually feel myself falling in love with it.

This does not mean that I think it’s the next Citizen Kane. It isn’t. But I think it could easily be our Sideways*, even if many of us (and many not-yet-birders) would consider Sideways to be the better of the two filmsSome supposedly objective assessment of quality—that’s beside the point.

The point is ownership. The Big Year, with all its warts and bumps and imperfections (as well as its considerable charms), is ours, in some important, essential way, if only we allow it be.

Can you imagine a parent telling a child that he or she could be part of the family only if the child could grow to a certain height or run a certain speed or achieve a certain critics’ approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Well, sadly, maybe part of that you can imagine. But isn’t that the worst kind of parenting, toxic to both the potential rejector and the potential rejectee?

I’m not confused, by the way, about who owns and profits from ticket sales and licensing of the film. That ain’t birders. Again, not my point.

My point is, we can use this movie and the energy it brings (positive or negative, doesn’t really matter) to do something. For us. To create change. To move forward. To become stronger. To dance.

Here’s a 3-minute video that’s really worth your time, if you haven’t already seen it. It’s about how movements start and spread. And about how leaders tend to be overvalued compared to their followers, especially the initial followers.

Are you starting to see what I’m getting at here? So the band and the promoter are the ones getting paid at the concert. The people that built the movement actually paid for their tickets to get in. They could have all just sat there and said, “Hey, I paid for this concert! And you know what, I’m not sure how much I really like this band. And that PA system, it’s pretty crappy. And this concert tour has only been averaging a 39% critics’ rating on this one web site I’ve been watching.”

But they didn’t do that. They danced. And I’ll guarantee you that every one of those people that got up on their feet had a better time than they would have had if they had all remained seated.

So, as I see it, we have to stop obsessing, those of us who are, and start dancing. Keep dancing, really. And start waving in those folks who have seen, will see, or just hear about The Big Year. Doesn’t matter how many join us. If we dance, we’ll have fun, even if nobody new joins in (and believe me, at least some will). If we sit on the sidelines and fret about how we’re being perceived, we’ll just be miserable.

The birding movement isn’t new, of course. It’s just that it needs to bust a few new moves if it’s going to maintain and increase its energy.

And if you’ve seen the film, admit it, didn’t your heart swell and quicken just a little during those closing credits, with Brian Small’s bird photos pumping by to the rhythms of Guster’s, “This Could All Be Yours?” Those credits, which surely constitute the world’s most exhaustive and fast-paced, not to mention danceable, photo ID quiz, aren’t online anywhere I can find. But here’s Gusters’ video:

This is one of those songs that’s all about the beat, but there are some lyrics in there that really resonate for me:

“You come as Elvis Presley every Halloween

And dream of sing-a-longs the whole wide world will sing

Into the great unknown, Horatio

Desire and ambition fuel this heart

So take a breath and step into the light

Everything will be all right


This could all be yours someday

This could all be yours someday

This could all be yours someday

This could all be yours, all yours, someday”


Well, I’m here to tell you, it is ours. Right now. And I am dancing, even if I’m not sure of all the steps all the time. (Don’t worry, I will keep my shirt on. Promise.)

One more thing. Kenn Kaufman commented on my last blog post about it not being the birding or the portrayal of birders that might put younger people off this movie, but the life situations that have little resonance to them. I agree. Then Kenn said something that I’d like to underline by repeating it here:

“It’s worth noting that those negative [birder] stereotypes were established literally decades ago, with the likes of Miss Jane Hathaway on the ancient Beverly Hillbillies show, and they’ve been perpetuated ever since by lazy people in the media who just stupidly copy each other instead of looking at real life. The most useful thing the movie can do is to start breaking down that old stereotype. Any of the three main characters in the film would make for a public image preferable to the old one. If journalists and TV screenwriters can start to think that birders just MIGHT be like the edgy Owen Wilson character, the admirable Steve Martin character, or the intensely likeable Jack Black character, then that old stereotype might start to fade away and be replaced with a more human face.”

Amen, Brother Kenn!

So I’m not worried about whether this movie tanks at the box office or not. That, quite literally, is somebody else’s business. I was a passionate, committed, friendly birder who just loves birds, birding and other birders long before this movie came out and I’ll be one until I die. Possibly after, depending on, well, you know.

What I want right now is for others to join our tribe, to dance our dances, sing our songs, and to teach us theirs. And I want all of us to have one hell of a good time doing it.

And I now know what my Halloween costume this year is going to be. Sure, I’m closer to Jack Black/Brad Harris physically. And in temperment, I see a smidgen of myself in Steve Martin/Stu Preissler. And even though I’ve never done a Big Year, I’m a lousy list keeper, and my, “fashion sense,” runs to dark blues and blacks, my choice is clear. This year, I’m going as Bostick. And I hope to have plenty of Annie Auklets out there pulling knives on me.



Good birding, everyone! Now c’mon, let’s dance!

*Sideways was “about” people who are into wine the way some birders are into birds. And I swear, that movie is single-handedly responsible for the price of Pinot Noir, and widespread appreciation of wine, nearly doubling.

**Not the toolbelt-wearing, contractor Bostick shown above. The, “candy corn-colored ass,” Bostick that dominates so much the movie. Liz is already pricing paisley fedoras.

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Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon is the president of the American Birding Association. There's very little about birds, birding, and birders that he doesn't find fascinating, though he's especially interested in birding culture and the many ways we all communicate our passion for birds, including this Blog.
  • I loved this post so much, Jeff. And frankly I think you would look GREAT in lime green pants. You’ve got the coloring for it.
    There’s been so much to digest over the last,what, TWO years or something when we heard the first rumors of this movie? And a frenzy of birders wondering what the movie will MEAN.
    TED said it well. It’s the followers who make the movement. I am glad for the leaders in birding, of course. But it’s US, the shirtless nuts, who drive it.

  • Robert Kyse

    I went to see The Big Year for a second time tonight. Four things happened.

    1)I enjoyed the movie as a human interest story instead of a birding feature.
    2)The young lady who took my ticket noticed the movie I was going to and said “Oh I just saw that movie and I loved it!” And I saw a young man there who was also at last night’s debut. I asked him if he was a birder. He said he wasn’t. He just liked the movie and thought he might start birding.
    3) I read Jeff Gordon’s post about his second viewing.
    4)I joined the ABA.

    I joined the ABA because of the other three things. It occurred to me that the people there were just like the characters in the movie – real, engaged, complex but genuine. And the young people at the theater reminded me to think young again – optimistic, open to new opportunities and the joy of sharing experiences. And Jeff just sets an inspiring standard of intelligence, decency and caring for something we all value.

    Thanks to everyone at the ABA.

  • Mary Ann

    I love this post, Jeff and at 76 I am still dancing!

  • Thank YOU, Robert! Wonderful stuff. Let’s keep it going!

  • Never stop, Mary Ann! Bird on.

  • You got it, girl!

    And you’ve been a real leader in helping change the face of birding into one that’s more more open, more friendly, more brassy, more bold. More fun.

    I am thrilled to have you at the party.

  • Liz Deluna

    Okay…you made me tear up.

  • It’s true, she did!

  • I love this post Jeff! Heres to the movie The Big Year! The book The Big Year. The writers, directors and the People that gave the inspiration for both. Heres to a kinder, gentler, more enlightened Birding world. Heres to the Movie and all of us opening some eyes to the Bird/nature world. I for one will be Dancing with you all! Thanks Mr. President..hee to call you that. Thanks..I love the new ABA.

  • Agreed, dance . . . dance!

  • Another excellent piece, Jeff. It was made that much more excellent by Robert’s heartwarming comments. This is exactly what the world needs now. Not necessarily the birding world… just the world. Peace, love, bird!

  • Claire Baker

    OMG, Jeff, great post! What a happy time for birders this year has been! I’m going to go see the movie tomorrow. And that is the sexiest Birding cover ever!!!

  • Is that really the cover of Birding? With Owen Wilson all puckered up on it?
    All right. This is gonna take awhile for me to process. Sitting down and fanning myself, groping for the smelling salts.
    Neat post. Loved the TED video and the larger picture you paint.

  • Julie,

    Sadly, it’s not a “real” cover. But it is a mock-up we sent that got used quite prominently in the film, in the John Cleese-narrated opening montage about the history of Big Years. It’s impressive to see Kenny’s field guide laden “tool belt” fill an entire cinema screen.

    And of course, wonderful to see Birding do that, too.

    You can see the YouTube version of that sequence here: The Birding bit starts about 0:35 in.

    Thanks for the good words on the TED video and the larger point. Sure, the movie seems to be bombing at the box office, but all of us trying to get more people closer to the natural world can still get a bump out of it.

    We just have to keep dancing and singing and waving people in, things that I know you are really, really good at.

  • Rob

    Bombing at the box office is an understatement. The Big Year has the 29th worst opening weekend take for all movies since 1982.

    Its so bad that I’ve only even heard of one of the other movies in the Bottom 30–the notorious 2002 bomb The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Think of all the bad movies you’ve heard about that bombed. The Big Year didn’t even do that well. And with Hoot coming in at the 33rd worst opening, it doesn’t look good for bird movies!

    Which is a crying shame, because The Big Year (and Hoot) is not that bad of a movie. I can easily name dozens of worse movies I’ve seen.

    With modern movies marketing the way it is, most of the blame has to go to Fox for the lame marketing of this decent film. Unfortunately, if a film doesn’t do well opening weekend, it usually exits the theaters shortly thereafter.

    Unless it can do better its second weekend. The Big Year will never be a big blockbuster. But it could generate a cult following. But that has to happen this week. If you really did enjoy the film, tell everyone they should see it in the theater rather than wait until it is available on Netflix. Otherwise even the DVD release will be small and this film won’t get the viewership that it deserves.

    OK, it may not be the best film you’ve ever seen–but only one film will fit that bill. And it probably is the best BIRDING film you’ve ever seen (or are likely to ever see, at this rate). So if you want folks to get a taste of what makes you tick as a birder–have them see this film before it is too late.

  • Hi Rob,

    Thanks for the info and the comments. I do hope you’ll post this to BIRDCHAT, etc.

  • Quote from Mike’s review: “It’s not possible to explain why anyone would zip back and forth across the continent ticking bird species any more than it’s possible to explain why people like to strap bungee cords to their feet and jump off bridges.” Bit close to the bone, considering I’ve recently returned from New Zealand where I birded on the east coast from north of Auckland, down to the west coast on the southern South Island, then Stewart Island south of the bottom of the country, and up to the northeast coast of the South Island – pretty much zipping back and forth up and down and across the entire country. And managed to find time to strap bungee cords to my feet and jump off a bridge.

  • Rob,
    You are quite correct in your bemoaning the dismal showing of this really quite good movie. But before you blame Fox too much, please remember that they took a huge gamble on this film (and unfortunately lost). Not only did they pick a subject never before featured in a movie, but they tried very, very hard to accurately depict creatures whose size and activity are wholly unsuited to show on the 25 foot screen of a movie theater. The technology and finances available to them for this task were inadequate, but they perservered in their commitment to make a movie about birding. For this they should only be applauded. As many of the reviews have said, the birds were the best part of the film. It is unfortunate that there were not more of them, but these were the reasons for it.
    As technology improves, maybe someone will bring us another story about birders and the creatures of their passion, but until then, I can only be thankful that the guys at Fox took it upon themselves to honor us with a film like this one.

  • Tom Leskiw

    Readers of this blog might be interested in a movie review I did of “The Big Year.” It’s an October 29 post at

  • I didn’t catch all the songs in the movie but here’s a pretty decent list of The Big Year Soundtrack. Please leave a comment in the guestbook on the web page if you remember more songs…

  • BettyStephenson

    As a beginner in photography, birding at our local Sabine Woods in Sabine Pass Texas is an experience that real birders hit at peak spring and fall migration. Fortunately, like in the corporate world, there are all types of birders. Some who are 1st timers that come in wide eyed and not sure what all the excitement is all about, and the others that are soooooo serious that they sure can take the fun out of photographing these special sights and hearing those special sounds. The migration on the gulf coast with the 10-15 different species of birds in one tree at a time is a lot to take in. When you leave the Sabine Woods you realize what so many people (non birders)and those whose priority is the all mighty dollar, dont take time to look up and see how truely amazing the whole life cycle is. I wish I could pass on the excitement of simplicity of these beautiful birds that visit and move on and the ones that stay here in our own backyard, without the stigma of a geeky birder. Its simple, they are Gods creatures, enjoy the beauty and sometimes you just have to forget the camera and keep that sight in your head and heart.
    The Big Year made me laugh out loud when I really needed it. I loved it, I kept saying “how true and how real and heart warming”

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