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Yet Another Big Year Review

I finally saw it.

The Big Year, I mean. I went to one of those “bistro theatres,” where waiters bring you beer as you watch the big screen. I was glad to have the ale to brace myself!

You see, after working on and off for ten years on a lecture on the representation of birders in American cinema and television, 1930-2005, I had a lot of trepidation about screening The Big Year. Our visual mass media have not usually treated birders as three-dimensional, sympathetic characters. Would birders be depicted in The Big Year as tragic misfits and murderers, as in the first half of the twentieth century? Or would we be comic figures—mannish spinsters and knock-kneed milquetoasts—as was typical of on-screen birders in the second half of the twentieth century?

Thankfully, The Big Year didn’t fall back on these old stereotypes. We were neither suspicious-looking characters lurking in bushes nor hapless outcasts unable to perform American gender roles properly. We occupied, for the first time in the American mainstream cinema, the leading roles. All of the leading roles. And these roles were played by interesting, talented actors, by most people’s reckoning—actors with fairly strong track records at the box office, albeit mostly in lighter roles.

Attu shotFor the record: I didn’t strongly dislike The Big Year. There were plenty of winces and laughs. The chat with the innkeeper in British Columbia about her Xantus’s Hummingbird was spot-on, and the bird’s hovering appearance over Steve Martin was a moment we all surely recognize, that “there it is!” when we see something new to us, despite downpours and other obstacles. Attuvians must have chuckled at the attempt to recreate their world, right down to the Quonset huts, radio dispatch system, rats, and bicycles, but also must have howled at the various easily avoided mistakes: why was Paul Sykes’s carving of the White-tailed Eagle in the outhouse door changed to another species—to say nothing of the sleight-of-hand involving a certain person’s pants being run up a flagpole?

Although numerous small inaccuracies (birds out of place, botched bird vocalizations, and such) were distractions, they are so much a part of what we expect from Hollywood that they didn’t destroy my ability to stay with the story. We have all heard enough movie Cactus Wrens singing in New York or Western Screech-Owls in Georgia to realize that Hollywood has little interest in biogeographic accuracy. It would have cost nothing more to make the film ring true, but the director would first need to care about accuracy.

That the movie has been a flop financially should not surprise us—the reviews were almost all unkind. Many reviews were not very informative about the film itself but spoke volumes about the reviewers and their views of birders. “Why does The Big Year’s trailer intentionally hide what the film is really about? Here’s why: Because bird-watching—or birding, as practitioners prefer to call it—makes for a stupefyingly boring movie,” wrote Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald. “It’s like making a movie out of the goings-on inside the International Society of Chicken Sexing,” wrote Bill Gibron of Tampa for AMC’s

Such reviewers blamed not the actors or director or the script—they routinely blamed birders themselves for the movie’s failure. I can’t think of any past panning of a film that finds fault with hobbyists in this way. Birder-bashing was all the rage, maybe as never before. Perhaps those who study the political climate and candidates in the United States will not be surprised by this.

James Verniere, writing in the Boston Herald, chided: “I learned that competitive birding is only for the leisure class or for young people sponsored by their rich, indulgent parents.” On, Robert Levin compares the movie to “inhaling pound after pound of flavorless tofu.” He continues that the film “forgets the fundamental fact that for most of the general population the only thing more boring than birding itself is watching other people do it.” Joshua Tyler, of, echoes: “Maybe it’s impossible to make anything really interesting on a subject that is itself so inherently uninteresting.”

Great Spotted WoodpeckerGranted, movie reviews are largely written by people who spend a lot of time indoors, and in cities, so perhaps we should take these assaults with a grain of salt. But the reviews do provide an index of something—namely, I would argue, the general American cultural antipathy for, and suspicion of, birders, an antipathy that Hollywood has promulgated (and capitalized on) for many decades, just as it has cashed in on other prejudices and stereotypes. As have many other subcultures on the silver screen, birders have been cast in supporting roles, as sideshow to the main narrative, as subplot. So even if Hollywood went easy on birders in The Big Year, at least some reviewers were happy to dismiss us as unworthy of representation in the first place.

But I don’t think reviewers sunk this film.  I think the screenplay and direction did.

Let’s back up: when we say “birding,” what do we really mean? When I think of birding, I don’t think of Big Years, those exceptional practices that very few birders attempt on any scale, much less on the continental scale. And I certainly would not trace the Big Year to Frank Chapman’s creation of the Christmas Bird Count, as this film maintains in its cartoon opening narrative. The film’s further claim that having a high Big Year list makes a birder “the best birder in the world” is nonsensical—even people who have seen more species than anyone else in a given year, including the people on whose Big Years the book The Big Year was based, would never claim that their achievement has anything to do with extraordinary birding expertise or acumen, though they might rightfully point out that a successful Big Year requires grit, good planning, exhaustive communication, careful husbanding of resources, and help of many sorts from many people along the way.

The film’s premise is that the “big year” is an annual North American competition followed by all birders, who crown the victor at the end of the year, much as an athlete would be venerated. That has never been the case. But many movie reviewers took the film’s take on birding at face value, as representing birders and birding in an accurate way; many wondered how Owen Wilson’s character (named Kenny Bostick) could go to such lengths to get his photo on the cover of a magazine. Unfortunately, as with Jaws, some viewers will associate the Hollywood product with the real thing. In this context, it may be a blessing for birding that so few people saw the film in theatres.

So what has Hollywood done to birding in order to present birders—for the first time in a feature-length film, remember—to the world?  I would argue that it has misrepresented what birding is. The skills involved in the identification of birds, the wonder in their appreciation, the joy in sharing our discoveries, are overshadowed through much of the film, relegated to feel-good moments in a film dominated by the struggle for numbers (in case you missed the numbers, they’re presented regularly on the screen, odometer-style). Birding widows are equated to golf widows in the movie’s script, casualties to the same old masculine drive to compete. And with the reduction of birding to competition, so there must be occasional unsportsmanlike conduct—notably the incident with the Blue-footed Booby, in which Bostick tricks others into missing the boat for the bird.

Certainly, birders have done things to other birders that are unpleasant; we are not exceptional in that regard. But the truth about birders is that almost all of us, including people working on Big Years, share information readily and generously. Our enjoyment is magnified when others partake of our knowledge and our bird observations. How many of us have seen a fellow birder do anything remotely close to what Bostick does? Even birding tour guides who work for competing companies frequently share information, for heaven’s sake!

Thankfully, Schadenfreude is a relatively rare thing in our tribe, and though British birding history may have a few instances of misdirection (see Mark Cocker’s book Birders), I don’t perceive that behavior as widespread among Old World birders, either, though the competitive element there may be more prominent. These are not just “listers” in The Big Year—these characters are sneaky, even saboteurs, constantly looking over their shoulders and thinking of ways to outflank the other. How many birders do you know who behave as these characters do? The book on which the screenplay was based doesn’t provide evidence of this kind of chicanery.

Scenes like this Blue-footed Booby shanghai, or Bostick’s signing autographs on the Texas coast for dazzled young birders, or Annie Auklet (I have to admit that I loved her) taking Bostick’s two rivals out on a private pelagic trip because she can’t stand Bostick, or Bostick trying to make his potential rival vomit all rang false because they were based on misconstructions or exaggerations of what I have experienced in 40 years of birding. Exaggeration is expected in cinema, but one hopes for some artistic benefit—humor, insight, catharsis, something. Instead, for the most part, the actors seem all uncomfortable with their supposed motivations. One gets the feeling that the director read the screenplay and maybe the book on which it was loosely based—and didn’t look into birding or birders much otherwise. There seems through much of the film to be an estrangement of actors from the material, and for this I think David Frankel, the director, bears the responsibility.

Owen WilsonWhen Bostick shows up on the Texas coast to witness bird “fallout” (which looks more like an invasion of flying monkeys), he pushes aside several British birders, one of whom exclaims, “Only the Americans could turn birding into a competition!” or similar. (Did the irony here cause you to fall out of your seat in the theatre?) However absurd, this was an early cue that Wilson’s character was on the wrong track, that his arrogance and brusque, inconsiderate behavior would be his downfall. In the end, his high number puts him on the cover of Birding magazine as the best birder in the country (thank heaven this is inconceivable), but the characters played by Jack Black and Steve Martin agree in a telephone conversation that they have won—they were bonded together, and more closely with their families and partners, through their Big Years.

The film’s quick, overdone, predictable heartwarming scenes—with marginal footage of courting Bald Eagles, a robotic Great Gray Owl, and a bedraggled Pink-footed Goose (in places where none of these birds occur)—rang truer because they managed to get birding’s core experiences right. They were about wonder, sharing, accomplishment, persistence, and learning. And those scenes dovetail with the film’s take-home message: the numerical result of the competition is not what matters. Family and friends matter. The birds themselves matter. The journey matters. Owen Wilson has no family in the end and looks wistfully on a young Chinese couple with child, while Jack Black has a beautiful new birder-girlfriend and Steve Martin a supportive, loving family as he finally enters retirement.

Does the film’s little closing moral mean that I liked its message about American birding? Not really. I think The Big Year took birding and tried to make it fit awkwardly into a set of very familiar Hollywood tropes—the Buddy film, the Road Trip, the Scavenger Hunt (add on others: son misunderstood by parents; wife abandoned by a compulsive husband). In the final scenes, the dual boy-gets-girl and husband-loves-wife-more-than-money ending is just as shopworn as the plot lines in the uninspired screenplay. In the end, can a nonbirder (or reviewer) be blamed for finding birding unappealing as it is depicted in the film? If you can’t afford the flight to the Aleutians, or the helicopter ride through the Ruby Mountains, or even the Annie Auklet boat trip, what else is there?

The screenplay is without an answer, and I think this is because the real answer runs counter to the logic of the Hollywood machine and perhaps also the logic of American mass culture generally. Birders know that birding has very little to do with the size of a bank account. With a simple binocular, or even none, birds can be watched for hours on end, with immense profit to mind and spirit. All the birding gear, all the travel, all the bragging rights about records are mere add-ons or distractions.

The reason we birders are misunderstood—and perhaps the reason Hollywood has still largely failed to portray us accurately—is that in its everyday, typical form, practiced by millions, birding involves no transaction of funds, no sex or peep show, no violence or great dramatic conflict. The chief elements that fuel American mass-cultural products are mostly absent in birding. Indeed, birding—as I see people doing it, all over the world—may be an antivenin to the sex/violence/capital nexus that seems to be at the heart of so much popular culture. To a culture enslaved to such a golden calf, how can it not seem ridiculous, even pathetic, for a person to shed a tear at the first Chestnut-sided Warbler of spring? What is profitable, hedonistic, transgressive, ironic, or cool in that, or for that matter in our many fascinations—habitats, identifications, distributions, behaviors, not to mention butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles, and more?  American pop culture urges consumption and physical pleasure; our lives are defined differently, by growing knowledge, study, connection, fascination.

In the 1990s, a quirky television series called Northern Exposure featured main characters who were birders, Holling Vincouer and Ruth-Anne Miller. Their birding adventures were incomprehensible to another character, Maurice Minnifield, a wealthy retired astronaut, who exclaimed, in a 1994 episode:

How two otherwise intelligent people can expend so much energy on a fundamentally meaningless activity is beyond me.


It’s way beyond me how a grown man could pee his pants over a chickadee [Gray-headed] that’s common across half the Russian-speaking world. Look at yourself, Holling. You used to go out and kill things. Now you’re bivouacking with an old woman and a zoom lens.

Many reviewers of The Big Year sided with Minnifield, who was, as it happens, marginalized in this episode as someone who failed to see that birding involved some of the greatest joys of living in Alaska—camping and cooking out, photography, fireside chats, and the joy of seeing something in nature that you’ve never seen before, with a like-minded fellow traveler. So at least one writer for a popular television series did see what we see, whether “lister” or “birder,” namely the grand pageant and pilgrimage that birding takes us on, the adventure in all of it its components, friends, family, and all. Minnifield, whose preoccupations throughout the series were affluence and influence, called birding “fundamentally meaningless” because real birding involves neither. Even the most diehard lister knows that the number isn’t the point at all.

If the aim of the screenplay was to expose listing-for-its-own-sake as an empty practice, that point is taken. But the film provided only glimmers of what might make a person fall in love with birds and devote a life to them in the first place. The photographs and footage of birds employed in the film were startlingly poor, often grainy and washed out. The special effects were decidedly unspecial. With all the phenomenal photography of birds out there (think of Winged Migration—or even what your average 19-year-old birder now gets with a 7D Canon), is this the best Hollywood can do to show the world what fuels our passion? The moment with the golden-plover photograph could have been far more memorable had the bird been in breeding plumage; and in place of flying monkeys, maybe a few warblers on the Texas coast?

I’m hopeful that this isn’t the last major film in the United States to portray birding and birders. Do we need a sea change in what Americans value before they see us, and birds, clearly?

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Ned Brinkley

Ned Brinkley

Ned Brinkley has edited North American Birds, ABA's journal of ornithology, full time since 2001 and contributed over 120 articles to birding journals and magazines since 1982. He started birding at age six in southeastern Virginia, with the Great Dismal Swamp and the Gulf Stream being perennial favorite patches. In the subsequent 40 years, he has birded and led birding tours on five continents, taught European literature and film at the University of Virginia, opened a birding bed-and-breakfast inn on Virginia's Eastern Shore, participated in research projects on seabirds, and written a few books, including Virginia's Birdlife: An Annotated Checklist (with Steve Rottenborn), The National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, and a children's book on birds in the Reader's Digest Pathfinders series.
  • Brilliant, Ted. There as many reasons I bird as there are birds, but you hit on the core of it here. As a cynical and jaded Gen-Xer I still feel weak in the knees when that Chestnut-sided warbler appears, and each lifer makes me tremble like a 13 year-old girl at Justin Bieber concert.

    A movie will never capture birding, or nature appreciation in general, in my opinion. It’s the wind and the rain and the seasickness and the mosquitoes and the 3am alarm and the empty field that was supposed to have a Henslow’s Sparrow and the fact that all of it is worth it. Good luck showing that last part on a movie screen. As the saying goes, you have to be there.

  • Thanks, Kirby! I especially like the comparison to the weak-kneed 13-year-old at a Bieber concert. I do think that several Canadian films and British films have come a lot closer to showing well-rounded birders (and striking birds), but so far our U.S. cinema doesn’t seem to connect. But maybe this film, preoccupied with birding-as-(dirty?)-golf, is a start. A lot of boomers retiring now, and they will, after all, need to find something to do.

  • Laura Erickson

    I think it was perfectly fair game for the movie to show the dark side of birding for families of birders. At any rate, I know a LOT of divorced birders. And look at how Phoebe Snetsinger refused to change plans for a tour when it conflicted with her daughter’s wedding.

  • Laura Erickson

    I thought you were spot-on about how insulated reviewers are. It’s true of much of the media. When I started my (very little) radio show about birds 25 years ago, the station manager thought it would never possibly catch on, even in Duluth, MN, where we have a huge migration and lots of cool birds appear right in people’s backyards. But my little 3-5 minute spots have gotten more contributions to the station than just about anything else they air. And PBS stations used to use nature programming as cheap filler between their BBC series. Until they discovered that they got more support and contributions because of that programming than a lot of other programs.

    People who get those kinds of jobs are really out of touch both with nature and with the people who enjoy it.

  • Yes, indeed, Laura, I agree – fair game, and lots of divorces. I don’t know that the divorce rate among birders is higher than for the general population, though, and I don’t know that birding is the primary cause of the divorce in a majority of divorce cases in which one (or more) spouse is a birder. So although Phoebe’s long absences (because of birding) was clearly the reason for her divorce, I don’t feel comfortable saying that lots of birding is equivalent to a “dark side” per se – most divorced people I know complain of lying, cheating, greed, apathy, drinking, drugs, etc. in their past relationships. I don’t think that doing a Big Year in fact constitutes dark (or obsessive) behavior – look at the differences between the Owen Wilson and Steve Martin characters. Martin’s wife was sympathetic and let him have his year off; by contrast, Wilson lied to his wife, who was not supportive of the year off (and had every right not to be, of course). So the act of doing a Big Year in itself isn’t a negative, not for me at least, and not for the film, I would say: Martin comes to terms with what is most important in life, and with his own limits and his mortality, in the process of doing the year. So I don’t have a problem with the narrower focus on Big Year per se (and also wouldn’t want folks to think that I consider that activity in a negative way).

    My point with the review was more to look at the film in the context of the history of the representation of birders. In the film, we’re not only presented as fairly interesting people (even hip – Owen Wilson decked out in paisley crashes a rental car and finds a Great Spotted Woodpecker by ear?), we’re played by a set of actors almost guaranteed to “make bank.” In some ways, I think it was the director’s decision to make all three characters relatively real (and not stereotypes or bozos) that meant the film couldn’t do well at the box office. If the film had been more in the tradition of Best in Show or A Mighty Wind or similar films, I think it would have drawn many more people. So that decision was fascinating to me – an attempt to present birders as real people. I am amazed that it was attempted. I fully expected a film full of pratfalls and slapstick.

    The problem I had wasn’t so much with the dark relationship moments in the film (leaving the fertility clinic for a Snowy Owl and lying about it, for instance); these were fairly well acted, familiar bits. The problem for me was that the film seemed at pains to “explain” birding to a non-birding audience (as in the opening sequence, and in SO much of the dialogue) but disregarded, I believe, so much of what is at the core of birding. And this disregard seemed, to me, to have consequences for how the actors dealt not so much with pat scenes (son not understood by father) but with the birding scenes. Both actors AND audience need to understand and feel motivation for a film (or play) to work well, in my opinion, and I rarely felt that this film brought it all together. So we left behind stereotype … a good thing … and tried to present birding as a real thing (not just another sideshow) …. but we left out some of the most vital elements.

    Did anyone see the three principle actors on the Leno show? They barely mentioned birding in the 10 minutes or more they were on stage, and when they did, they treated the topic with a ten-foot pole, as if worried that they’d lose stature in being connected with the hobby. I was very surprised by that, but I saw the interview before I saw the film, and their discomfort with the roles came through on the screen as well, at least in many of the birding moments. Getting the girl, embracing the grandchild, wrecking the car – all those scenes were perfectly serviceable. A few birding scenes were okay, but they reminded me of some of the reaction shots in Jurassic Park at times.

    I don’t expect any film to get birding “right” – but I think we’re still waiting for an American film to attempt that. At least we’re on the radar!

  • Spot on, Ned. In my opinion, a very accurate review. As a (young) birder I felt it was my duty to bring at least a couple non-birder friends to The Big Year, with the hope that maybe they would just begin to understand the allure of birding. At first, I was excited to see such high-profile actors portraying birders. But as the film wore on, I realized how wrong I was to bring them, and their attitudes at the end made me think that the movie may have had the opposite of my intended effect . . .

  • Laura Erickson

    This film came a lot closer than most, and so I’m grateful for that. And my husband (not at all a birder) and son (a birder, but not an acquisitive one) both enjoyed it without reservations. I’ve heard from a lot of birdwatchers around here who liked it for a lot of reasons.

    I think you’ve done a great job of looking at some of the issues of the movie, and I agree it’s hardly Oscar fare and didn’t get a lot of things spot-on, but it made for an enjoyable evening (or three in my case) for those of us who could suspend disbelief and look past the anamatronic birds and people making bird calls in situations where I’ve never once witnessed anyone making bird calls, much less expecting someone to identify poor imitations. (And Great Gray Owl hoots are much deeper and resonant that Jack Black’s “hoo, hoo, hoo” calls.)

  • Laura – LOVED that comment about the radio spot/segment. We should all do those! I don’t think Virginia has ever had anything similar at all. What a superb thing. They have a semi-spoof of a birding radio show in the film Rare Bird with William Hurt, but that’s a Canadian film, so we can’t lump it with Hollywood. I might pitch a radio show to our local station, or at least something similar. Will be sure to note your successes there if I do!

  • Laura Erickson

    Just be aware–I’ve been doing it for 25 years, and it airs on 8 stations and a lot of people subscribe to the podcast, and I have done it all these years entirely as a volunteer. I don’t mind–it gives me creative control–but it’s not a way to earn a living.

  • Hey Benjamin – I do hear ya. I think the birding bug is something that has to happen almost organically – at least, having observed many people trying to convert (or at least try to explain to) family, friends, spouses over several decades, I’m convinced that there are people predisposed to birding and people who simply will never understand it, much less desire to do it. One of my favorite bits in the film, though it was botched, was the “Attu honeymoon” – why they had to go all Hitchcock, I don’t know. But yes, there is great wisdom in not making a rat-infested Aleutian island your honeymoon getaway unless both people are birders (and pelagic trips are very bad for first dates, too, by the way!).

  • Laura Erickson

    I loved that side plot. He was so cheerful and endlessly optimistic about this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. And she started out cheerful about it. I’d have loved a honeymoon on Attu, even in a dorm. But I don’t think many people would find it romantic, especially those who love $250 scarves. They just don’t get chumming.

  • Kirby Adams

    My apologies for calling you Ted…there seem to be numerous Ted’s here. 🙂

  • In this context, it is an honor to be called Ted!!

  • Paul Ostler

    Like most birders, I was astonished and excited by the news of a movie release about birding. While watching the movie, as it progressed I remember thinking

    • “how could this be interesting to a non-birder”
    • “this isn’t birding being portrayed”

    These were good actors, and if they’d been directed to act like birders, the film could have been endearing to non-birders. Alas, there was no glimpse into our passion. It was more like competitive golfing than birding. If this was birding, then it would be a pointless hobby.

    Also, why does the Indiana Jones of the movie, “the greatest birder in the world”, have to be a bad guy? Isn’t that a recipe for a flop right there?

    Thanks Ned for the poignant review. I feel like I’ve read them all. And I think your review nails it.

  • John Baumgartner

    I appreciated your review Ned. I was a bit suspicious of the movie because of how Hollywood often pans less conventional subjects and how it can miss some the deeper qualities in a subject. On seeing the film I had very mixed reactions. I think it did present birding differently than in the past as you so aptly wrote, however to me it missed the crucial element and that is the kind of connection that I and other birders I know have not only to the avian subjects we watch but to the whole setting in which birds and we humans live. There is something almost mystical about this connection which makes it possible to imagine being creatures along side everything else on this planet. I believe only a great artist could put that quality in a film.

  • Mary Ann Good

    I appreciate Ned’s comments and, in particular, John Baumgartner’s response. Unlike many/most birders, I was NOT excited when I heard a mainstream movie, with topnotch comic actors, was coming out about our hobby, especially one about the most competitive aspect of it. For that reason, I have not yet seen it and can’t react to the movie itself. (Not that I’m boycotting it, just didn’t dash out to see it.) My misgivings about Hollywood’s ability to accurately portray the “mystic connection”, as John says it well, that we experience when using our hobby to connect to the natural world, was only confirmed by the “fallout” scene highlighted in the trailer. It’s what a nonbirder would envision when hearing the term “fallout” used of birds, but how was this misconception allowed to make it into the movie? The thought of a warbler “fallout”, that makes every birder’s heart pound, is so far removed from the common sight of a swarm of blackbirds swooping through the sky, and nonbirders could only wonder–“THAT’S what they get so excited about? Who ARE these people?”

  • The other day someone on Oregon Birders on Line was looking for a term to describe the way he interacted with birds. He was uncomfortable with being associated with stereotype of what a BIRDER is. At the same time, he felt that the term bird-watcher still carried too much baggage. I have come to realize, over 40 years of paying attention, that most of the baggage heaped upon the term bird-watcher now comes from birders.

    This movie perpetuates the new stereotype.

    Three weeks ago, those of us who suggested that this movie was not a very good representation of the art and science of bird-study, of the joy and passion of being outside communing with the environment, the thrill of seeing, where roundly told we weren’t paying attention.

    I saw the movie in a theater ALL BY MYSELF. I was told that that was why I was so nonplussed. Seeing it with other birders would have made all the difference. I was being hyper-critical. It’s just a movie. One person told me he liked it so I should just shut up.

    But here’s the thing. If it is just a movie (and it is just a movie), why did so many in the birding community seem to have such high hopes that it was going to somehow turn things around? That we were finally going to be accepted? That everyone was going to want to become a birder and join the ABA?

    Is our collective self-esteem really that low? Are we really that desperate to sit at the cool table?

    I was represented in this movie… In the background where one has to pay attention to see me. The scout leader. The ranger. The feeder watcher in BC. The lady operating the speaker at “Attu”. The British guys who Hollywood seems to think don’t approve of competitive birding. Frank Chapman and all those unsung ladies who helped him campaign against 18th Century “Birding” (the 300lb Moa in the room). The folks who championed the word bird-watcher before it became too uncool to use among people who SERIOUSLY bird.

    Of the 31 reviewers listed as “top critics” on the Rotten Tomatoes website, 16 labeled it fresh. By my math that’s more than half. The audience rating is 54%. Should we assume they were all serious birders?

  • That should read: “19th Century “Birding”…”

    Don’t what to get labeled too dumb to be a birder…

  • Tim O’Connell

    Great review, Ned.

    First, I was expecting the movie to stink like a Turkey Vulture buffet, so I was pleasantly surprised by my occasional audible chuckles and warm, knowing smiles. That was by far the best movie about birding I’ve ever seen.

    I agree that it represented a sensationalized, distorted view about something that occupies a tiny fraction of what birding really is. I would love to have seen at least one scene that illustrated – for lack of a better term – the 99%. Where they dropped the ball was in the *other birders* portrayed in the film as mindless, hero-worshipping twits. Compared to them, the main characters were far more interesting. I kept waiting for a scene of sharing information and joy at some newbie’s lifer or something like that. Wouldn’t it have been great if one of the main characters (any one of them, really) was seen taking a detour during one of their mad dashes to get some rarity to spend a few minutes with some newbie pishing in some common lifer and sharing in that wonder together? That’s what I see when I go birding with other people.

    I guess what I’m waiting for from Hollywood is the insertion of birding as a pastime in characters in movies that are not about birding. We see people just playing a round of golf in movies that aren’t about golf. It would be really easy to have characters say things like “I’m going birding down at the park” or “Hope you find something good!” Even alluding to birding like this would be great.

    Finally, and this might be a bit of sacrilege, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with The Big Year, the book. I read it because my muggle (non-birding) relatives had read it (probably following some kind plug on NPR) and sent it to me awaiting my opinion. It was all right, but I didn’t find the stories of the three in the book, or the competition among them, all that interesting. The book didn’t make me want to go out birding, and it didn’t inspire me to do a big year. Kingbird Highway, in contrast, I find to be a much more inspiring story about the lengths to which someone would go to do a big year, and that book still pumps me up to get out there.

  • Paul, John, Mary Ann, Tim, and Mike – It’s great to get this feedback! After reading so many online posts that were relatively enthusiastic about the film, I was worried that my notes would be read as a “wet blanket.” For me, every film is an opportunity to learn about our culture, and though some can be hard to watch (and this one wasn’t so bad in that respect), they all tell us something. In this case, I think I learned that we’re still lagging behind Canada and the United Kingdom in conveying birding’s subtler rewards on the big screen. But then, in a country that has been so enthralled by acquisition and competition since its earliest days, doesn’t it make sense that our “big” debut would be in the context like the Big Year? Thanks again for reading the review and for the excellent further insights – Ned

  • P.S. – Belatedly, I want to thank Ted Floyd, Kenn Kaufman, Bryan Patrick, Fletcher Smith, and Todd Day for reading through earlier drafts of this essay and providing great suggestions for revision and a whole lot of perspective.

  • Barbara Volkle

    Interesting discussion. Thank you, Ned.

    I was happy to see that a mainstream film was finally going to be about birding or have birding in. Let’s remember however, that this was not made in order to be a promotional film for birding.

    Going back to earlier comments, “marginalized” was a word used to describe how media in this country views birding. Our response to this, other than Laura’s post, for example, is apparently, to passively accept this. Why are we accepting this, lamenting on the sidelines, only speaking to each other?

    We have much to learn here from the hunting and fishing communities. Their organizations are HUGE. They have money to spend, they are advocates in the political arena, and they are marketers of their interests and marketers of their image.

    This is just one quiet film. But it’s one more film in the mix of mainstream media than we had before. To me, the most engaging question is, what do WE do next? Wait for the next round of non-birders to describe and pigeon-hole us? Will we take some responsibility and initiative? What are the birding community’s next steps? What will you, gentle reader, do next?

  • Dalcio Dacol

    Very insightful review! I didn’t like the movie but I made a point of seeing it twice and drove my wife crazy complaining about it and comparing it to the book… Anyway, I made the mistake of reading the book first and then hoping that the book’s spirit would be preserved in the movie. A naive mistake! Once it went through Hollywood’s sausage making machine the story (compared to the book) displayed good and new things, but, as the old academic joke goes, the good things were not new and the new things were not good. I particularly disliked the new personalities of the 3 main characters. In the book I admired Al Levantin and Sandy Komito and their rags to riches personal stories. Komito a self-made man, rising from a tough childhood in the Bronx to a successful business owner who did it his way. Levantin, who had an even tougher childhood, climbing the corporate ladder thanks to both his practical and emotional intelligence. Curiously the third guy (in the book) that had what most would consider a near normal childhood, who was introduced to birding by his Dad etc, was the one that seemed to be really driven by an obsession, by a “hunger that could not ever be satisfied”. Compare to the caricatures in the movie and one can see the main weakness of this movie: its hollow characters, we never know why they do what they do. A final comment about the movie: I feared Jack Black was going to knock himself out given the ferocity by which he brought his binoculars to his eyes in all his scenes…

  • Thanks, Barbara, for putting the ball in our court. I think one reason that birders don’t have a more balanced onscreen presence is that very few of us work in the Hollywood machine. (I know only one “inner circle” Hollywood birder, and I should not mention the name here, but probably one of the most important (impactful?) films of the twentieth century was partially written by him and his wife.) Maybe it’s not surprising that we’re not much in that world – we live elsewhere. But another reason for our scant presence may be that what we do is really very different from what blockbuster films contain. Surely, you could try to meld the modern fascination with profanity, big “body counts,” steamy sex scenes, and slapstick with birding. Would it still be birding? “Dumb and Dumber,” with birders? I for one think that we COULD have a better presence within the blockbuster genre. What if Sigourney Weaver’s character, a biologist, had been a birder in “Avatar”? Or what if one of the characters in “Sideways” had been a birder (not just attacked by Ostriches)? I don’t think there’s a necessarily strong connection between political perceptions and clout and representation in film/tv, but there is SOME connection. I don’t think birding as we know it now (and especially listing) will survive much longer, as ecosystems and economies collapse around the globe, but we owe it to the birds to make our presence known and voices heard, on behalf of birds. The identity of “birder” is no prerequisite for an appreciation of birds.

  • Hey Dalcio – Yes! Thanks for those good notes. I agree with the last bit, about Jack Black’s wielding of binoculars. You can always spot a fake birder by the way they hold and use binoculars. When CIA agents captured up a human rights activist on Block Island, they disguised themselves as birders. But they somehow didn’t know how to hold field glasses properly and so were figured out by the activist, who walked up to them and surrendered, describing their incompetence to them (plus, it wasn’t the season for migration out there…). So yeah, I think Jack Black said he went for a very brief “bird walk” with Greg Miller but that the other two stars didn’t show up (Audubon interview). Maybe not enough deep study….?

  • Hi Ned, Interesting that you’d mention “Northern Exposure.” Another early 1990’s TV show also had a famous affinity for birds, though perhaps not for birders. That show was “Twin Peaks.” The very first image in the show’s credits was of a Bewick’s wren perched atop a gently sloping Japanese pine branch on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. The show also had a thing for owls, which I happen to know you are not fond of. Finally, a myna bird featured prominently in the first season of the show as a witness to the murder, though it, too, was sadly killed. Could the talking bird’s murder perhaps have been symbolic of the violent nature of television programming in relation to Nature and the world of birds?

  • Westley,

    I agree that Twin Peaks was pretty bird-aware, if not birder-aware. “The owls are not what they seem.”

    But that opening shot? It’s a Varied Thrush, not a Bewick’s Wren.

    Check it out:

  • Westley Knight

    Hi Jeff, I thank you for the concurrence, though, FYI:

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