The Big Year According to Birders
Though the film departed from reality for the sake of some jokes, Butcher and Howard agreed that it nailed some important stuff. “One thing that was real is how birders share information,” Butcher remarked. “That’s a real hallmark of the birder community.” Bosticks, for instance, calls rare bird alert hotlines for the latest sightings. Those hotlines were the forerunners of today’s list-serves, and were compiled by other birders. “Every state has a list-serve now, and people all around the country find rare birds locally and report them. So it’s the people who are finding them—the local bird finders and the guides—who tend to be the best birders in the world,” said Butcher.
The film also got another aspect right: the emotional tug that draws people to birds. In one poignant scene, Brad shows his father—a nonbirder who finds his son’s obsession effete and odd—an American golden plover (a common species) on his iPhone app and said, “My favorite bird. That’s the bird everyone underestimates.” From another actor, the line would sound overwrought; from Black, it’s all heart. “’Underachieves’ in terms of its looks—it’s gray,” Howard said, emphatically, “But what makes it stand out is its story. It flies tens of thousands of miles in a year, migrating from [North] pole to [South] pole.” Brad’s father finally comes to appreciate the sheer beauty of a bird and its will to survive.
As the credits rolled, on a split screen to the left of the scrolling names, photos of the birds on Bosticks’s record-shattering list flashed by as fast as a shuffled deck of cards. As he stared raptly at the screen, Howard pointed out, “The real birders are looking at every one of these.”