On the Origin of His Species

With a new Hollywood movie ­taking aim at birders, Michael ­Roberts steps up to defend his kind

The Big Year

The Big Year     Photo: Murray Close

The really sad part about the persistent bird-nerd caricature is that it prevents so many otherwise intelligent, adventurous people from learning a fundamental outdoor skill.

Here’s how it usually goes down: A rare species of bird shows up. A birder calls in the sighting to a hotline. Others race to see it. News outlets run stories about the curious flock of … humans.

"They came from as far as Chicago," began a report in The New York Times this summer, when a lone gray-hooded gull strayed 10,000 miles from its home in sub-Saharan Africa and landed on Coney Island. "They lugged cameras with telephoto lenses, bino­culars and tripods.… They excitedly congregated around a yellow pole."

They are bird nerds—just like me. Most of us, you assume, are middle-aged men who wear pleated khaki shorts and floppy sun hats. The women among us might be of the vintage ­archetype: priggish old ladies who meet every Tuesday at the local Audubon Society.

And now we have a movie.

The Big Year, based loosely on the 2004 nonfiction bestseller by Mark ­Obmascik, ­depicts the efforts of three men racing around North America to set a new record for the most bird species recorded on the continent in a 12-month period—a massively expensive, all-consuming endeavor birders call a big year. Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada) and starring slapstick titans Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin as three guys utterly consumed with the pursuit, it will surely harden the image of birders as obsessed losers.

I’d find this annoying if I didn’t think the film will also spur more people to start learning about birds. You heard it here first: The Big Year won’t be birding’s A River Runs Through It—which made fly-fishing hip overnight—but it just might be its Sideways.

Yeah, I dig birds. Watching them gives me a buzz that I suspect is similar to what meditators feel when they’re really in the zone. I’ve gone looking for birds in Thailand, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Fiji, Baja, and Alaska. I’ve also been known to pull out binoculars at weddings, on ski lifts, and along mountain-biking trails. For this I have been taunted by friends, family members, strangers, and even colleagues at this magazine, which is supposedly dedicated to covering "the world outside." All this and I don’t even wear khaki.

The problem is that birding, it was ­decided long ago, is not cool. Which is ridiculous when you consider the way we glorify other obsessions. A fly-fisherman who spends months and entire paychecks tying flies inferior to what he can purchase in a store is soulful. A skier who can describe 27 types of snow conditions—“It’s soap bubbles on sastrugi out there, bro!”—is hardcore. Recite baseball’s last six Cy Young Award winners and you get a fist bump. Mention that you can spot six falcon species in North America and you get a middle finger.

This despite the fact that the number of birders in the country keeps growing (current estimates range from 50 million to 70 million) and our ranks keep diversifying. The hypercompetitive “listers” of The Big Year actually had their heyday in the 1980s. When Obmascik reported his book, in 1998, he was capturing “the flaming meteor of a dying old way,” says Ted Floyd, the editor of the American Birding Association’s Birding magazine. Birders will always care about racking up sightings, but trying to pin a stereo­type on our flock is becoming increasingly difficult. Some time ago, I was in Central Park in Manhattan watching a Cooper’s hawk eat a blue jay when a twentysomething dude with ­tattoos on his forearms skateboarded up next to me and … whipped out his binoculars. He smiled at the carnage, then raised his fist and said, "Nice!"

The really sad part about the persistent bird-nerd caricature is that it prevents so many otherwise intelligent, adventurous people from learning a fundamental outdoor skill. I’m talking about the fly-fisherman who can’t tell the difference between birds that eat insects and birds that eat seeds. Or the eco-minded surfer who lets his dog chase endangered western snowy plovers off the beach. "Good boy, Maverick!"

Here’s where The Big Year might sneak up and make a difference. The same way ­Side­­ways had people pitying (or hating) wine snobs but choosing pinot over merlot, The Big Year could have people walking out of theaters and pausing to look up at the winged creatures circling the parking lot. That’s what making the film did to director David Frankel and the cast. "I’m now so attuned to birds!" he told me. "Every­where, I spot movements in the trees and sky—and I pay attention." This past spring, Steve Martin titled his latest bluegrass album Rare Bird Alert.

Chances are, The Big Year will inspire only so many folks to learn to distinguish a wrentit from a bushtit. But if you’re one of them, I’ll be more than happy to welcome you to the tribe. Nerd!

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