Hedy Reviews “The Big Year”
Starting every January 1, there is a competitive event called a Big Year in which a birdwatcher records how many birds he or she sees in North America over the next 12 months. The prize is bragging rights. This book is the story of one particular year (1998) when politics and foul weather combined to increase the possibility of seeing birds never recorded as being seen before in North America. And of the people attempting a big year, the author dwells on three whose paths periodically overlap as they run into each other in out of the way places like the island of Attu (where Americans first experienced Japanese suicide attacks during WWII) and High Island, Texas (where severe weather changes cause migrating birds to fall out of the sky). Their backgrounds are so different from each other, but the lure of birds unites them. One of the men was a retired executive from a chemical company. Over the years, the chemicals had caused him to lose his sense of smell. He was not bothered at all when in order to see a particular bird, he had to walk through an especially pungent-smelling landfill that made others gag. It made me muse about the modern-day “wildernesses” consisting of feedlots, sewage ponds, and water treatment facilities where birds in great numbers now gather because they’re some of the places where water is easily available.
“The Big Year” is not dense with facts, but it is dense with personality. It’s whimsical and made me laugh at times. The reader does learn about birds and birdwatching too, of course. And one of my favorite pieces of information had to do with the phrase “as thin as a rail”–I always thought that referred to the rail part of railroad tracks or to the rail of a rail fence–certainly not to a yellow rail, a bird which “looked as if it had been squished between bricks.”
“The Big Year” is the basis for the movie of the same name starring Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson.
598.0723 OB “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession” by Mark Obmascik, 2004, 268 pages