The Big Year: An Expert Weighs In on Extreme Birding

The Big Year
Owen Wilson, Steve Martin and Jack Black are extreme birders in The Big Year

Over the weekend, I saw The Big Year, a movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson as three guys looking for meaning in their lives. They’re also avid birders who embark on a “Big Year,” an annual event wherein the goal is to spot the most bird species in North America in a single year.

Martin plays a high achiever who’s looking to retire from the company he built. Black plays a guy trying to figure out what to do with his life, as his father (Brian Dennehy) takes every opportunity to demean his choices. And Wilson is a husband who’d rather jet off to see a rare bird than spend time with his wife (Jessica Pike), who’s trying to get pregnant. Yeah, that’s difficult when your husband is hardly ever around.

While The Big Year, based on the [amazon_link id=”145164860X” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]book by Mark Obmascik[/amazon_link] (check out his official site), is an entertaining movie and ok for kids 10 and older (it’s rated PG for language and some sensuality), I was more interested in those folks who are just crazy about birds. Look, I love watching the chickadees and nuthatches on my feeder as much as the next girl, but I’m not sure I’d trek through a jungle with binoculars in search of a rare bird.

Rachel Dickinson
Rachel Dickinson and friend

So I asked my friend Rachel Dickinson, author of [amazon_link id=”B004JZWM1C” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Falconer on the Edge: A Man, His Birds and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West[/amazon_link], what this birding business is all about.

Jane Boursaw: What’s the deal with birds? Why are people so fascinated with them?

Rachel Dickinson: I think once people notice birds — really look at a bird — they marvel at how beautiful they are. And if they really think about it, they marvel at the whole migration thing. I mean, really. Imagine traveling a couple thousand miles from the Bahamas to Canada to breed and raise young, and then turning around and heading back all in one year. That is unbelievable.

Is The Big Year a real event? Do you know anyone who’s done a Big Year?

The Big Year is real, and I have known a couple of people who have done one. It’s an intense and extremely lonely pursuit. You have to be an incredibly obsessed birder to do it.

In the movie, birders keep running into each other around North America. Would that really happen?

The hardcore birding world is actually kind of small, and the hardest of the hardcore would be trying to see the exact same bird at the same spot. Where they’re likely to run into each other is when an exotic bird — like the pink-footed goose in the movie — turns up. Going to Attu in Alaska is birder paradise for someone trying to count Asian birds on their North American bird list.

Birders were trying to beat Bostik’s record of 732 birds in one year. Would it really be that difficult to spot 700 or 800 species? How many would we typically spot in our back yard?

It depends on where you live and where you’re birding as to the number of species you’re going to see. Bostik’s record was the number of bird species he saw in North America in one year. An awesome feat. If I tried to do that, I’d end up divorced and disowned by my children. I can see about 35 species of bird in my back yard because we get warblers that come through on migration. By way of example, when I took a two-week trip to Northern Peru, I saw 200 species of bird that were totally new to me.

Storms played heavily into bird sitings around the country. Why does the weather matter?

Storms matter particularly during migration because they will push birds into places they wouldn’t normally be. They showed High Island in Texas before a storm with literally millions of birds falling from the sky — birds that had just been pushed across the Gulf of Mexico. Storms will bring weird birds to an area because the birds get caught up in the winds.

You’re a veteran travel writer with work published in The Atlantic, Perceptive Travel, Smithsonian, Audubon, National Geographic Traveler, and Wildlife Conservation. Are there trips specifically for birders? Have you done any?

There are lots of birding trips out there, from beginner trips to places like Costa Rica where there are lots of birds to see, to trips for hardcore birders going to remote places like Paupau New Guinea, where there are still birds in the jungle to be discovered. I have gone on several birding trips, ranging from easy to not-for-the-faint-of-heart. Hardcore birders get up well before dawn to catch the birds as they wake — called dawn chorus — and then will go, go, go until after dark.

Falconer on the EdgeTell us about your book, Falconer on the Edge. Do falconers consider themselves bird people, or are they in a separate group by themselves?

In my book, I followed a hardcore falconer through a hunting season in Wyoming. There are bird people who hate falconers because they use falcons to hunt with — they think it’s cruel — but in my opinion, falconers are providing the falcons with food and optimal hunting experiences, which they would be doing in nature anyway.

In some ways, I think that falconers are uberbirders because in order to be a successful hunter, the falconer has to understand everything about his falcon and its prey — which in the case of my falconer was sage grouse — including bird behavior; the life cycle and natural history of these birds; and the impact of weather, climate, and man-made events (like farming or natural gas drilling).

Learn more about Rachel Dickinson at her sites, and The Haiku Diaries, which she writes with Jenna Schnuer.

Other books by Rachel Dickinson:

Great Pioneer Projects You Can Build Yourself

Tools of Navigation: A Kid’s Guide to the History and Science of Finding Your Way

Tools of the Ancient Romans: A Kid’s Guide to the History and Science of Life in Ancient Rome

The Witches Handbook: A Field Guide to Magic


17 responses to “The Big Year: An Expert Weighs In on Extreme Birding”

  1. Rachel Avatar

    Hey, thanks!

  2. Roxanne Avatar

    I’ve not read the book, but I was surprised that the movie looks / looked so madcap (at least in the original trailers). Casting Black threw me a bit. I’ll be curious to see how it works out on screen.

  3. Kerry Dexter Avatar

    great to have Rachel’s perspective on this movie as a bird expert and a travel writer. thanks, Rachel and Jane.

  4. Lisa Avatar

    Great video and lovely pics, I like these birds as well. Keep up the good work.

  5. Melanie Votaw Avatar

    Rachel is right on the money. I’m a serious birder, though not hard core. I keep a “life list” and have more than 1,000 species total on it. I’ve been to birding lodges in Ecuador and other countries specifically to watch and photograph birds. It’s a wonderful hobby, but there are indeed people who become crazy obsessive about it. And, yes, the community is small enough that you run into people around the world at times – especially the “famous birders.” While birding in Thailand, I dropped the name of a birder in Singapore, and the people around me knew him. (He’s prominent because he guides and has worked to save certain lands in his country from being destroyed.) I find it to be a very enjoyable hobby, and that’s all it’s about for me. I never thought I’d keep a list but found that practice to be more fun than I expected, too. A birding guide in Australia told me of famous birders from the U.K. who were more interested in the prestige of what they got on their lists than seeing the actual birds. I don’t get that at all. (There are birding clubs, and getting certain birds on your list affords you bragging rights.) Birds are beautiful – that’s the bottom line. I’ll definitely see this film, of course, because I will surely identify with it and get lots of laughs out of it.

  6. sarah henry Avatar

    As a closet birder, loved this interview and looking forward to seeing this film. Should be a hoot!

  7. Chloe Avatar

    I’ve not browse the book too, however was surprised that the movie looks so madcap. I have to say too that I loved this interview and looking forward to seeing this film.

  8. Crissa Avatar

    Change is a process that happens over time, not overnight! So cut yourself some slack, hop back on the wagon if you tumble off, and combat that negative self-talk by reminding yourself of the stages of change.

  9. Living Large Avatar

    A friend of mine who is a birder, saw this movie and loved it. She was very impressed that it was so authentic.

  10. Daniel Avatar

    Birding sounds like a really big challenge but I can imagine how fulfilling and satisfying the sport can be. I agree that birds are fascinating animals especially if I look into their way of life and how they survive. The book sounds interesting. I am eager to learn the experiences of a falconer.

  11. Maverick Avatar

    I managed to watch this movie… Great! Not I want to have this book to be one on my collections… Thank you for sharing some pics here…

  12. FelipeG Avatar

    After a long wait Steve Martin finally made a new movie! Thanks for sharing this!

  13. Melanie Votaw Avatar

    I saw the movie and didn’t think it was so authentic. The birds are mostly CGI, it seems, as they would have to be. A Brit in the film says, “Only Americans could make birding into a competition.” That made me laugh very loudly. No group in the world is more competitive about birding than the Brits. The idea of doing a big year doesn’t remotely appeal to me, but I thought all of the actors did a good job. It was entertaining.

  14. Melanie Votaw Avatar

    As for Jack Black, his character in the film is actually very sweet. He’ll surprise you, as he avoids his usual schtick.

  15. Natural Health Magazine Avatar
    Natural Health Magazine

    I love birds and this review gave me something to look forward to. Since it’s okay for kids 10 and up, I guess it would be okay for my whole family. Thanks!

  16. Roger james Avatar
    Roger james

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. Rachel is right on the money. I’m a serious birder and love birds.

  17. David Avatar


    Nice movie!!! Now Im living in Mindo (Ecuador). We have here around 400 species!!!

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