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Canadian Projects

Canadian Blog

by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

NBD Special (Part V): ‘The Big Year’

Published 12/27/11

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a two-month series of blogs written by Barry from Canada and, from her perch at our Sacramento headquarters in Northern California, Senior Program Associate Monica Engebretson. Their “blog-off” is part of Born Free USA’s celebration of National Bird Day, which every year falls on Jan. 5.)

Barry writes:

This is not meant to be a movie review, but rather an unabashed endorsement for a film that I thoroughly enjoyed, that just happens to also be about something I have done all my life, albeit not quite the way portrayed in the movie.

"The Big Year" stars, from left,
Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson.
(Photo by Murray Close, 20th Century Fox)

The movie is called “The Big Year,” is correctly billed as a comedy, and stars Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin, backed by a wonderful cast of top actors. It is based on the book, “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession.” It will take me a while to explain what it’s about, and before I do that let me first say that the scuttlebutt I’ve heard is that the movie will bomb at the box office (there were six people in the theater, including my friend, Sandi, and I, when we saw a matinee in October) but will probably be something of a cult favourite. Also, while it has received some very good reviews, it has received some negative ones as well.

So let me say that yes, this is not a film for those who need to see aliens, zombies, gunfire, over-the-top CGI effects, torrid romance, evil criminals or big explosions. It is cleanly funny, but also explorative of the inherent need we tend to feel in varying degrees to make a mark, to achieve something special, to compete and excel, and to balance that need against the often contending need to live in association with others, to have a fully realized life, and to love. And if all that sounds too cerebral to be entertaining, rest assured that is accompanied by humor and, as a bonus, some spectacular scenery. And for those who care, the acting is simply superb.

Wilson, Black and Martin play three men of very different backgrounds, means and stages in the respective lives of their characters who independently share two things. They are birders — the term we birders prefer in place of the older term, “bird watcher” — and they decide to try for a “big year,” a calendar year in which, within a given region (in this case North America north of the Mexican border), they seek to see as many species of birds as they can, and indeed, to see more than any other birder.

Why? I don’t know if anyone has ever explained why people play golf, draw graffiti, ride dressage horses, enter pie-eating contests, join motorbike clubs, write poetry or do any of the many things we do for fun, and often do competitively, awarding ourselves kudos and prestige for greatest achievement. I’ve birded since earliest childhood and so never “caught the bug”; I was born with it. Yes, it can be a healthy, social endeavour, and it opens one’s eyes what I consider to be the extraordinary beauty inherent to the forms, textures and colours of the natural world and to what the great American bird illustrator, Louis Aggasiz Fuertes, called “the singular beauty of birds.”

But it can also become an obsession. The birding done by the three protagonists is not my kind, their interest only being in seeing the bird and “ticking” it off their lists. We call such birding “listing” or “ticking” or, less kindly, “twitching,” a term that gained currency in England when it was realized some birders were so competitive (often against their own records) that the prospect of seeing an ultra-rare species would cause them to literally twitch. I’ve seen it happen.

What takes the film out of the ordinary is the truly nuanced performances by all involved, and I’d particularly single out Wilson. His character is the top birder, a super-cool dude, a rather nice guy, really — a successful businessman with a lovely wife and a lovely life, but possessed with this overwhelming desire to have yet another big year, in competition with the other two protagonists. He is not beyond being devious, although always within a self-imposed set of standards and morals. He is the putative bad guy of the trio, the man to beat, but in fact what happens through the movie is that one finds oneself liking all the characters, birders and non-birders alike, for their basic humanness.

Birders will find surprisingly few errors or missteps — for the most part the science is accurate to a degree practically unheard of in Hollywood — but this is a film for everyone who likes good-quality movies. Sandi, who has never been birding, loved it. And so did I. Highly recommended.

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