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Birding is the opposite of being at the movies—you’re outside, not sitting in a windowless box; you’re stalking wild animals, not looking at pictures of them. You’re dependent on weather, geography, time of day—if you miss the prothonotary warbler, there isn’t a midnight showing. On the other hand, birding, like moviegoing, is at heart voyeuristic, and you can’t do it without technology—to bring birds closer you must interpose binoculars between yourself and the wild world. To find them in the wild, you need planes, trains, automobiles, and motorboats. Birds are natural; birders aren’t.
And some birders are less natural than others, like the three characters at the heart of “The Big Year,” who are driven to see as many North American species as possible. They are genial caricatures of normal people, partly because they’re in a Hollywood movie, but mostly because they are birders. As a birder myself, I recognize the symptoms: I’ve traveled great distances to see birds; I’ve totted up the names of birds on lists and felt weirdly comforted, as if they guarded me against oblivion; I’ve listened, like Jack Black’s character, to birdcalls on my iPod. But I have to admit that at bottom I’m an indifferent birder, despite having written a book called “The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of the Nature.” At the end of the day I am a bird-watcher, not a birder.
This may seem like a pedantic distinction in an already marginal world, but it matters—though the two terms bleed into each other. Crudely put, bird-watchers look at birds; birders look for them. Ahab wasn’t fishing, and the guys in “The Big Year” aren’t watching birds, they’re scouring North America in a ruthless bid to tick off more species than anyone else. They don’t even have to see them—hearing their call is enough.
Huge numbers of people are bird-watchers; the United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that something like forty-eight million Americans watch birds. Of those, only a tiny fraction have the time, money, and obsessive devotion for hardcore birding. But, inevitably, these are the guys who wind up in a movie, talking absurdly about being “the best birder in the world.”
Thoreau, a bird-watcher, famously said that he could spend from dawn till noon sitting in his doorway surrounded by trees and birds; this may explain why there have not been many film adaptations of “Walden.” “The Big Year” has more in common with “The Canonball Run.” There’s a moment when Steve Martin, playing a high-powered businessman who thinks nothing of hiring a helicopter to spot Himalayan snowcocks in Nevada, is derided by another businessman for “bird watching.” “It’s called birding,” Martin says grimly, and if this were a Western, his gun-hand would twitch.
Competitive cross-country birding didn’t really take hold until the nineteen-seventies. It’s a paradoxical fusion of countercultural, Earth Day, dropout rebellion merged with the world-conquering zeal of baby boomers. Birding is like competitive meditation.
But our approach to the natural world has never been simple. Audubon kept boastful count of the birds he slaughtered, then he posed them in life-like positions and reanimated them in his paintings. In “The Big Year,” which is based on a book by Mark Obmascik, the character played by Owen Wilson fails to show up for a scheduled insemination of his wife because he gets a tip on a snowy owl, choosing to look at the natural world rather than be part of it. (In truth, Thoreau, living alone like a monk in the woods, wasn’t so different.)
Like the hysterical paralytics Freud studied, birders reveal a great deal about universal human psychopathology, especially our tormented relationship to the natural world—the world that produced us and from which we are estranged. We’ve got to control nature, but if we control it too much we only wound ourselves.
Bird watching is really all about the quest for balance—between the curious animal at the near end of the binoculars and the wild animal at the far end; between the classifiable and the ineffably mysterious; between our killing, conquering urges and our impulse toward conservation.
And “The Big Year,” in the end, does have a bird-watching sensibility. The man who sees the most birds also loses the most. Perhaps filmmakers know as well as birders the tension between the watched world and the lived world, and all the questions it raises about what kind of animals we are. The movie makes bird-watchers of the audience. There are too many beautiful birds on view, and during the final moments of the film, as hundreds of birds and bird names flashed past, I felt a tremendous yearning to be outside looking at them. But I felt the birding urge rise up in me too. Suddenly, I wanted to see them all. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll do a big year.
Written by Jonathan Rosen