A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush to a hunter, but to a competitive birdwatcher (a “birder”), a bird in the hand is as worthy a prize as the chirp of a bird on a tree branch a quarter mile away.
That’s because the mere sound of a bird, correctly identified, could tally a point of one on a “year list” – a year long count of bird species, a game played as disciplined as a round of golf, by birdwatchers who have advanced their hobby-sport to a competitive level.
It is the subject of the new movie, The Big Year, starring comedy kingpins Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson, and if we are to half-believe the tongue in cheek written opening of the film – “This is a true story, only the facts have been changed”, – those privileged or passionate enough to spend an entire year documenting bird species do it for the love of the birds, the thrill of the hunt and the bragging rights to being hailed Birder of The Year by Birder Magazine. Plus all that comes with that, which apparently doesn’t amount to a sack of birdseed.
Hopping on a jet to Alaska or climbing a snowy mountain peak at the mere rumor of a rare species is commonplace to these obsessed adventurers, yet with all the potential for a wild and crazy chase across the continent while birdwatching, ( Can’t you just picture Frank Black at the weak end of a tree branch with a camera?), The Big Year scores its points on its gentle nature, its casual approach, even as you feel the hard scribe of a screenwriter avoiding heavy ventures into screwball and sentiment.
So we get a swath of human detail: marital strife, financial strife, meaning of life strife, as groundwork for three guys racing around the country with the passion of a Herculean task and the duty of an office stenographer. After about the 200th recorded bird species, you begin to care for these slightly cliched characters, (one’s rich; one’s poor; one is king of the birders), and envy the freedom and single mindedness they possess on their seemingly insignificant mission. Following a quaint wintry trail in pursuit of a snowy owl with a sparkling limitless credit card in your pocket, becomes a fitting movie ideology.
The three leads deliver expected solid performances and Black is especially inviting and sympathetic as an aimless (except for birds), thirty-something who abandons life’s duty for the chance to wear the crown of birding. There is an eye-popping list of actors, includin Angelica Huston, Brian Dennehy, Diane Wiest, and others offering strong selfless support.
The screen is often a flurry of computer graphics depicting competing bird counts, maps, and images of species, while the camera trails the birder’s wayward paths like a bloodhound in pursuit. The birds themselves, more often than not, are just short of genuine, with a Disney-like touch up, making them appear like a distant naturalized cousin to an actual bird.
It somehow all works. It’s a breezy yet frantic romp in pursuit of something forever elusive. An attempt to define life by the achievement of a task, in this case the number of birds found and recorded in a calandar year.