Today’s book is The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik

Okay, so I am not a birdwatcher. When I lived in North Carolina I learned how to identify some of the pretty birds that lived in the woods near my apartment, so I will admit to owning one birding book, but I have never gotten into the whole birding thing….. but birders are an interesting species, and that is how I came to pick up this book.

Obmascik focuses on the hunt to break the standing records of “The Big Year.” What is the “Big Year?” Well, it is basically a year of crazy competitive birding. An American “Big Year” is seeing how many species a birder can count over the time period of a year, in most of the US (for reasons that are not totally explained, Hawaii is left off the list for a Big Year, but Alaska is on it). Few people undertake this challenge, but the few that do… boy are they characters.

The author follows three birders during a Big Year in the late 1990s, Sandy Komito, Greg Miller and Al Levantin. Komito, the holder of the Big Year record number of birds is a wealthy businessman with money to burn, who sets out to break his own record. No one every does a Big Year twice but Komito is determined. Levantin, another well-off businessman decides to do a big year after dealing with the boredom of retirement. Miller, is a software engineer, who attempts to pull off a Big Year despite some significant handicaps, he doesn’t have the money, he continues to work full-time during the Big Year (he uses weekends and saved vacation time) he’s out of shape, and recently divorced.

The author goes into the history of each man, how they all became birders (interestingly, all of the men come from modest, working-class backgrounds-) how their families deal with their obsession (Levantin and Komito’s wives are good sports, Miller shares his love of birding with his elderly, dying, Mennonite veterinarian father. Some of the passages about Miller and his dad are the most touching in the book) and how and why they undertake the Big Year. The majority of the book takes you through the madcap race that is the Big Year, with all the characters, lunacy, and sheer crazy that it is. (The passages about the birders’  time in Alaska on a narrow island 200 miles from Russia that has been abandoned by the Coast Guard are pure comic gold. The idea of men jumping on last minute flights to places 3,000 miles away to see just one special bird is also pretty wacky.)

This book is funny. Laugh-out-loud, hurt your sides funny. The author captures the madness that is competitive birding- he explains some of the rituals, the rules, the code of honor, and oh my gosh, did I say this book is funny? Somehow Obmascik harnesses all of the crazy that is the three main characters, the insanity they go through trying to beat each other in the quest for the title, and he teaches you a lot about the world of birding and birds.  This is the kind of book that you want with you when you are stuck someplace unsavory, such as an airport, or waiting at the courthouse to be called for jury duty, because it sweeps you along with its breezy humor, and transports you to a different place. Once the Big Year itself really gets underway you cannot put it down because of the fast and funny pacing of the writing and because you want to know… who won the Big Year?

If you need a laugh and don’t mind learning about competitive birdwatching get this book. It’ll make you smile, and it is most certainly not just for the birds. 🙂

Ciao for now,

Bookish C