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My Big Yearby Mark Obmascik
And through it all, they compete.
Every year on January 1, dozens of people abandon their regular lives to join one of the world's quirkiest contests. The goal: Spotting the most species of birds in North America in a single year. Braving bug-infested swamps, snowpacked mountains, broiling deserts, roiling oceans and some of the lumpiest motel mattresses known to mankind the most obsessive of America's top birdwatchers travel more than 250,000 miles with hopes of glimpsing some rare bird in some improbable location. It's usually fun but sometimes vicious, amazing to outsiders but deadly serious to the participants, a feathered version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Their contest, as well as my book, is called The Big Year, but I also got to enjoy one. This project was a writer's dream three otherwise sane men who chose to do one thing, and only one thing, for an entire year. In the wilds of West Texas, one contestant came face-to-face with a mountain lion. Another man grew so obsessed with finding new species that he ran out of money, maxed out five credit cards, and lived for three days in the Dakotas on nothing more than a jar of Jif peanut butter and a bag of Mr. Salty Pretzels. Amazingly, one guy even survived a Christmas Eve dinner, alone, in a Chinese restaurant, in Duluth. These birders were smart, funny, and with a sense of natural wonder and curiosity that would put even Tom Sawyer to shame. For some reason, though, they decided to dedicate 365 days of theirs lives to gallivanting around the globe with hopes of seeing a creature with a brain no larger than a belly button. They had the time of their lives. I had the time of my life recounting it.
Think about all the bird puns I had to work with. There's not only the broad, general stuff Are you flapping your wings? Nesting? Doesn't the early bird get the worm? but all kinds of others that refer to very specific species. Maybe you're a wise owl with eagle eyes who sometimes struts like a peacock, but usually goes as the crow flies. Do you give a hoot? Have you seen the first robin of spring? Have the swallows returned to Capistrano? We start life watching Big Bird on PBS, grow up to shake our fists at "Free Bird" on the radio by Lynyrd Skynyrd and eventually turn in to Old Coots. I bet you can name a bird pun. What are you chicken? (My wife put up with this for a year. My kids even took to calling me the big crow full of caw caw.)
There's a lot in this book for non-birders. Obsession, after all, is a universal thing. But I found that the people in this obsessive subculture are more interesting and more fun than most. One of the main contestants in the book was a New Jersey industrial contractor, Sandy Komito, who grew up poor and then scrapped his way to one of the toughest and most macho businesses in the industrial Northeast while never betraying his love for fragile, beautiful birds. He was teased so much about birdwatching that, when he was in the U.S. Army, he'd stash his binoculars in the pockets of his Army fatigues. When he was running his own business in New Jersey, he'd use his binoculars to check on his crews on some factory rooftop while still glassing for migrating shorebirds in the nearby swamps of the Meadowlands. Birding was the itch that needed to be scratched.
Another contestant, Al Levantin also grew up poor, but pushed himself to run a major international division for a Fortune 500 company. He was so driven to climb the corporate ladder that he repressed his love for birds for 40 years. He was a workaholic who traveled up to 100,000 miles a year for his job. At one point, his wife (a marriage counselor) calculated that in 37 years of marriage, they had never lived together 30 days in a row. Though they both wanted to retire together, he brimmed with 40 years of repressed birding obsession. The road warrior at work wanted to stay a road warrior for retirement, traveling hundreds of thousands of miles for birds. But when he chased his Big Year dream, he found that he really missed his wife.
And then there was Greg Miller, who gets more hugs per mile than any guy I know. Greg started his Big Year on January 1 as a way to try to recover from his December 31 divorce. Greg grew up Mennonite in the world's largest Amish community, and worked part-time as an evangelical minister in the Washington, D.C., Beltway. Greg's divorce was devastating not only emotionally, but also spiritually. He also worried that it might hurt his relationship with his devout father, the large-animal veterinarian to the Amish. Greg's father had taught him how to bird. So every night during his Big Year, Greg phoned home to plot strategy with his father should he try for the flamingo in the Everglades before jaunting out for that Xantus's hummingbird in British Columbia? Their shared love of birds brought father and son closer than ever.
Besides the people of The Big Year, one thing I really liked about this story was the chance to write about amazingly beautiful places. These guys lived through a magnificent travelogue. They were in the Florida Everglades at dawn for flamingoes, the North Woods of Minnesota after dark for owls, in the heat of the Arizona desert for hummingbirds, and atop the Continental Divide of Colorado for ptarmigan in the winter. These guys could have had one of the world's greatest postcard collections, but they were too consumed with birds to ever send much home.
Of course, not all places in The Big Year were so idyllic. This was a bird's eye view of the continent, and birds aren't always preoccupied with fantastic views. For years, the only reliable place in North America to see a Tamaulipas crow was the Brownsville, Texas Municipal Dump. So every year hundreds of people would line up under the hot Rio Grande Valley sun and point their $1,000 telescopes at towering mounds of stinking South Texas trash. Al Levantin had a secret advantage here: He started his career as a lab chemist, work that destroyed his sense of smell. While dozens of other hardcore birders would be swooning at the dump from the rotting stench of fecund Texas garbage, the Big Year contestant was able to keep his eyes on his scope and the prized crow. And that's what the Big Year competition was about filling the list of birds, gaining an edge.
When I first started this project, I knew that birding was a subculture. What truly surprised me, though, was the sheer size of that subculture. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, 40 million Americans can be classified as birdwatchers someone who tries to figure out what species is responsible for all those messy sunflower husks below the feeder in the back yard. By the government's count, one of every five American adults or alleged adults is a birdwatcher. That's a lot of people, but still not a measure of the birding obsession.
The same government report found that 3.6 million Americans or a population roughly the size of Connecticut can identify 40 or more species just by sight or call. Think about that: 40 or more species. Most people can figure a few a pigeon, an American robin, a mallard but 40 is a lot of species. And 3.6 million people is a lot of birders.
But here's probably the best measure of the obsession: 2.4 million Americans keep a life list of every species they ever have seen. That's a birding army the size of Arkansas.
Maybe there's something going on here. Maybe birding isn't just about Miss Jane Hathaway of the Beverly Hillbillies, or bachelor retired British Army colonels. Is there a chance birding is actually getting cool?
Or, as one fanatical chaser once told me: Anyone can be obsessed with Cameron Diaz. But it takes a real man or at least a real secure man to be obsessed with birds.