The Big Fizzle . . . or not
A Review of The Big Year by Tony Gallucci, Milk River Media
Fair Warning: This is going to become two reviews in one – of a book and of an unseen movie. As a tie-in to the upcoming movie The Big Year, starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin, Kristin Matzen of Free Press Publicity (Simon & Schuster) sent me a copy of the book on which the film was based for review. Written by Mark Obmascik, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession tells the intertwining stories of three birders, Sandy Komito, Al Levantin and Greg Miller, chasing what may seem to non-birders a ridiculous goal – finding the most species of birds in a year in North America.
The reissue is likely meant to piggyback on what is hoped to be the success of the movie, which is being heavily marketed, especially to birders, and perhaps also to drum up business by stirring up critical buzz for the film before it hits this coming weekend.
The former must await the release, but on the second count there is both good and bad news. The one line review would go something like this (and then I will expound): it is a delightful tale of oddball personalities in quest of their life dreams, but the birding in it suffers badly from poor research and/or understanding.
Perhaps it’s all that could be expected from an outside writer without prior knowledge of birding, but since Obmascik insinuates in the introduction that he is now birding convert and evangelist, one could have expected much more. Since the original publication was in 2004, one might also expect that a reissue would include some updated knowledge and some corrections. No such luck.
Birders have been awaiting the film since the first wave of PR came out a few months ago, and has reached an anxious crescendo on the birding listservs and forums. Much of the talk has swirled around three basic topics, each relevant to an examination of the book and this review. The topics are: a) did they make any effort at accuracy with the birds? (including using actual footage of the birds they are talking about; are the bird calls and songs correct; are the locations and habitats correct; is the discussion about them correct); b) are birders going to be made to look like fools? (especially considering Black, Martin and Wilson have each made a career out of playing fools); and c) will it bring more people into birding as a pastime (and maybe subliminally ‘I hope it doesn’t bring a ton of people into birding!’; but also a hint of ‘I hope it also makes people more aware of 1) the environment, 2) conservation, 3) endangered species, and 4) giving a little space to the crazy birders in their lives’).
As I progress here, understand that I’m reviewing the book – I haven’t seen the movie yet, only the several trailers (see links below) – and so my critiques are mostly about the text. The problem, if there is one, is that it’s the starting place for the film, and my gut feeling is that one could hardly expect the film to have taken a giant leap in credibility – the normal progression is for a film to play fast and loose with the facts presented in a book. We’ll have to wait and see.
Okay, let’s get into the nitty-gritty here: Birders, hardcore, listing, chasing, Big-Year-type birders are obsessed. Obmascik himself makes that point repeatedly in the book and I’m here to say it is absolute. One of Obmascik’s diversions is musing briefly about honesty – did these guys really see what they said they saw. Well, this is about personal obsession, there is glory attached, but obsessives want things just so, which is why one makes multiple trips to see a missed bird.
So why is this relevant?
A little personal history to illustrate: I too was a chaser (my obsessions have evolved since then), I did several Big Years myself, though not on a continent-wide or global scale, and once had the third best Texas Big Year (very briefly I might add, and I was long ago left in the dust). The point is, I know this chase business.
I am also a writer, and a minor-league filmmaker, and the confluence of those three things gave me a particular interest in The Big Year, both as a book and as a film.
I obsess over details, like all good, hardcore birders I know, most of them chasers at one time or another. I keep lifelists by county, I intently survey properties I work on for every living thing, I make lists other people wouldn’t think of (we all do, it’s part of the game): for 40+ years I’ve kept a detailed summary of everything I’ve found dead on the road. That’s the way we all operate – lists, numbers, games – ask Komito, Levantin and Miller.
So, pleased (excited actually) to be getting to review the book, I eagerly awaited it’s arrival, and when it did, and I ripped open the envelope and held the book in my hands, my heart immediately sank.
It’s a detail thing. There on the cover of the new edition, the ‘tie-in edition’ is a composite picture from the film of Black, Wilson and Martin holding up binoculars looking off the sides in profile. Of course, the book isn’t about Black, Wilson and Martin, but in our current cultural milieu, oversaturated by marketing, this is precisely what one would expect (though pictures of Komito, Levantin and Miller would have been nice out of respect for the fact the that the book is still their story – the film is fictionalized to some or another extent).
Nevertheless, that’s not what got my feathers fluffed. It’s that there is a bird perched on the end of Martin’s binoculars, tilted over as though peering into the binoculars at Martin. It’s a cute conceit, photoshopped in, and the humor was not lost on me. The problem is, the bird is an American Robin, altogether not an unusual bird for them to see, and it is tiny.
That’s the detail – that it is ridiculously small. So small that it is impossible for it to really be a robin perched there on his binoculars, at least to my eye, which I adjudge to be somewhat good at doing these kinds of things. But being the obsessive I am I am going to do some research to see if my eye is lying to me.
I don’t know if Steve Martin has big hands or small hands, but it’s easy to compare the size of the bird to the size of his hand. And being the obsessive I am I measured the hands of several folks in my office agreeable to having their hands measured. A simple comparison of the widths of their hands versus Steve’s and the bird’s length and I come up with figures that are approximately 4½ to 5½ inches for the total length of the bird in the picture.
Now, American Robins (I apologize for bringing science into all this) can vary in size a little – the birds breeding farther north will average a little larger than the ones that nest here in my podunk town, but the references I quick-checked indicate that average American Robin total lengths run from about 9½ to 10 inches. A bird the size of the one on the cover would be more like say, a Nashville Warbler. A birder instantly recognizes the size issues in that comparison – twice the length, in volume/weight much larger.
Okay, it’s just a stinking cover. Someone may have had a cute idea and passed it on to a graphic designer who not only knew nothing about birds, but may not have cared, and what you end up with is inaccuracy.
But where was Obmascik? Obmascik, the guy who has proclaimed in interviews that he got to check the accuracy of the script and sit in on filming as though his presence meant he would be consulted about getting things right**; doesn’t he get a say on the cover to the new edition of his book? Was he not a newly ordained birder who has the eye to immediately see the glaring error? And one would hope that now, seven years after first publication, his skills and knowledge have grown. Perhaps out of his hands . . . grumble, grumble . . . perhaps.
I still was anxious to get to the text, so I turned the cover over, out of sight, and began to read . . . and to find three, exactly three, times in the book where, in trying to give readers a sense of a bird’s size he compares them to a robin! “Robin-sized” it says, not altogether accurately. In online parlance my response is “smh” – shaking my head.
A digression: Accuracy . . . as a writer I don’t always get things right. There will likely be things that I don’t get right in this review. But I strive for perfection. When I do writing seminars I harp on getting things right. I teach, for instance, that I really don’t know anything about cooking, but I also want to, let’s say, write about cooking. So I’ll make sure I get the details right. I do everything I can to learn about the inherent culture of cooking, and then I may even run stuff by someone who is a pro to make sure I didn’t blow it somewhere.
See, I always wanted to write so that those very pros would believe I knew what I was talking about. I wanted them to enjoy my writing more than anyone else. If I’ve done that, then all the readers who aren’t pros gain real information and insight, and learn along with me.
If I fail in that objective however, then I destroy my own credibility. If I can’t get it right about my subject matter, then how could anyone expect that anything else I write is true, honest, accurate, or faithful.
Obmascik makes something of a big deal in an interview coda to the book about having trusted these guys, but still doing things to ensure accuracy like check weather service records to be sure their journals were not fibbed. It’s a shame no one was checking Obmascik’s accuracy as well.
There are points in his telling where in the interest of waxing poetic, and he gets pretty waxy at times, that he clearly wanted to set a scene and use birds to illustrate his picture, but it seems that he may have played pin the tail on the donkey in the bird book to choose his birds. In those cases he failed a few times. This is especially egregious because using the correct birds would have painted a better picture.
Obmascik may very well have not had any control over Big Issue No. 2 – the use of capitalized names of birds. It may have been an editorial decision he could not change. I have fought this battle myself many times, mostly with newspapers who use their stylebook and no one else’s, and you can be sure I beam when I actually see things done right in a newspaper. On the other hand a book is a product of self, and should represent self, and I will be most disappointed if he wrote it that way himself. If not, if this was editorial, then I am directing this at his editors – you helped wreck his credibility with his subject matter with your decision.
The American Ornithologists’ Union, along with other world professional organizations, makes it a rule to use capital initial letters in the names of all bird species (with specific means of determining which words in a hyphenated concoction are capitalized and which are not). It’s not a hard and fast rule yet among other vertebrate groups but should be, and many of us use the same rules when we write about them. As far as we’re concerned it is not open for editorial discretion any more than if an editor chooses whether people’s names should be capitalized or not.
By setting them off as proper names it serves a functional purpose, very well illustrated in this book – a black storm-petrel is not the same as a Black Storm-Petrel, a White-tailed Eagle is not the same as a white-tailed eagle, which well describes our national bird, but is not the white-tailed eagle talked about in the text. And because we obsessive types are accustomed to reading these in caps; it simply grates every time I come across one of these in the book, which is, of course, on nearly every page. Especially cumbersome and ridiculous are those schizophrenic names rendered as bizarre visual constructions like American avocet, Siberian tit and Baikal teal.
Had Obmascik not known this for the first edition, surely by the second he did, and the entire text could have been easily fixed.
More than anything else it is a blinding reminder in nearly every paragraph that I am reading something as though it was written by a dilettante. And please, I am not trying to be harsh here, or critical of Obmascik (who I do not know) as a person (but strongly suspect is a wonderful human being to be around and bird with). It’s just that I expected more when someone proffers his own interest and credentials before the story even begins.
A few more examples of missed details . . .
I recognize that the book itself is a document reflecting the times, and that our knowledge of bird species has changed some since the book came out. What were all Tufted Titmice then, are now Tufted Titmice and Black-crested Titmice. The book has to reflect the former knowledge because that was what was current at the time. But there’s no reason why the introduction to the book needs to be similarly dated – especially in an edition meant to draw attention now to the sport/act/obsession-with-detail of birding. More importantly, I find no excuse for not correcting blatant errors in the main text. If you are going to draw people anew to the book because of buzz over the movie, why not give them an accurate document?
For instance: It’s one thing to indicate someone was pursuing a certain bird that we now know is a different entity (i.e., titmice), it’s another thing to continue to use the older name of a certain duck, which was changed in part to match old-world usage as Long-tailed Duck, but also because it was considered offensive usage by some, and then to top things off to misspell it anyway as “old squaw”.
Ultimately, there is much bad science here, some of it technical, but some, it appears to me, to be based on the need to conjure up a particular image and just winging it without ‘knowing’ it. There is bad botany, bad geography, and most unfortunately, bad ornithology.
On one hand I try to forgive this as I don’t expect the author to have been scientifically trained, nor to have been obsessed with the details of birds and birding beforehand – and after all this is, I think, meant to be a book about people, about personalities. On the other hand, it’s that credibility issue for those of us who know. It’s about us being a target audience of sorts, and if you want to appeal to an audience of people obsessed with something, the details better be right.
I have written previously about how hard it is for birders to enjoy movies anyway (for example here; here; here; and here). We hear everything in the background and when the bird calls and songs are wrong for the setting, we (or myself anyway) get distracted from the story (another of my writing rules is ‘never do something that takes someone away from the story for even a second’). California Quail calling in the background kind of wrecked M.A.S.H. for me. That one at least was somewhat innocent – it was filmed in California made to resemble Korea and they just picked up ambient noise. Worse is a director wanting 'jungle noise' and loading a film up with Boreal Owl and Common Loon calls.
You can see that although we all have high expectations for The Big Year the movie, we’ll be listening.
One hopes he aspired to produce a book about The Obsession seriously enough to take cues about getting things exactly right. He might have aspired to Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway, or Mark Adams’ Chasing Birds Across Texas: A Birding Big Year – tomes about the ‘chase’ that were written by the ones who experienced them, who knew the details. Or even Don Stap’s A Parrot Without a Name: The Search for the Last Unknown Birds on Earth, about a more scientific pursuit, but a pursuit of birds nonetheless. Peerless documents these, and thus favorites. Even the dissed James Vardaman’s book Call Collect, Ask for Birdman got a lot of details right.
You see though, there is too much just not right here. The examples are dizzyingly numerous. My head only settled when the narrative proceeded down a non-avian tangent and focused on the people – which is where Obmascik excels, in catching the quirks of the folks he is detailing – while shushing my inner tendency to question everything.
I had trouble for example with the statement that there are 'seven kinds of tits (Siberian, bridled, bush, juniper, oak, tufted, and wren)'. This declaration is fraught with all kinds of scientific shenaniganery. For instance, the Bushtit and Wrentit aren’t really tits in the familial definition of things, they were called tits because of their resemblance to, and old-school placement with, tits. We know better now, and did at the time of the big year the book is based on.
That aside, Siberian is a chickadee in North American parlance, but because chickadees are called tits in the old world, and since the Siberian is the only one of our ‘chickadees’ that occurs in the old world as well, we acquiesced for a while to the old world name, leaving us with a bit of a naming jumble. It’s likely that most of the newer field guides in use during the big year attempt in 1998 had the bird listed as Siberian Tit, but in actuality, the AOU had changed the name back to Gray-headed Chickadee in a January 1998 supplement to the Checklist, and surely the three birders were aware of that name change. So the introduction was off on that one.
Even so, if the Siberian is a tit anyway, then aren’t the Carolina, Black-capped, Chestnut-backed, Mountain, etc.? Okay so maybe the Obmascik declaration is an mnemonic trick to help him remember a few names. If so, it’s personal and both distracting to experienced birders and disingenuous for the new birders among readers.
Take the other four, which present another interesting nomenclatural jumble – we don’t call them tits here, we call them titmice, and it’s accurate that he includes both Juniper and Oak Titmice, both halves of what was previously known as the Plain Titmouse. That split occurred in mid-1997, in plenty of time for the chasers to be aware of the chance to add another bird to their lists. Though neither is mentioned in the text, we have Obmascik’s introductory, and correct use of the names. But then what of the Tufted Titmouse? Black-crested Titmouse was split from the Tufted Titmouse in 2002, a few years after the big year, but a full two years before the publication of The Big Year. What’s the harm in getting that right? Otherwise you have people wondering what happened to ‘their’ titmouse, which happens to be mine as well.
And again: This statement is just plain hyperbole and nothing more – no such birds exist: “There are one-of-a-kind birds living on the streets of St. Louis, below a dam in Texas, and amid the suburban sprawl of Southern California.” He’s talking about European Tree Sparrows, Muscovy, and lord knows what. None of them species actually restricted to those locations – ha, the sparrow (actually a weaver finch) isn’t even native, and none so rare that only a single individual exists. Yeah, I get what he was trying to say, only that’s not what he said. Semantics is all it is, except that it’s inaccurate, confusing, and reflects on the rest of the manuscript.
These examples came just from the introduction to the book, Obmascik’s own reflections. What about the meat of the story? Is it any more accurate?
Well, declaring that an Amistad Reservoir Rufous-capped Warbler is displaced from Costa Rica is wrong; it doesn’t take into account that the bird nests commonly less than sixty miles away in Mexico, nor does it account for the common thought among Texas birders of experience that it is likely a not a terribly rare breeder (borne out by decades of discovery) along the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas, perhaps even inland a ways, it’s just largely inaccessible.
Here’s one of those little asides he makes that I immediately knew was wrong because I’ve held all three of these birds in my hand. To, in the course of one sentence, declare that an Elf Owl is both one quarter the size of a Great Horned Owl, and smaller than a House Sparrow, is not only impossible for it to be one if it is the other, but it is actually wrong on both counts.
There is a constant conflation of length and size, a la American Robin. An Elf Owl is approximately one-quarter the length of a Great Horned Owl all right, but in volume/weight is more like 1/40th to 1/50th; that’s hardly comparable to a quarter the ‘size’. Meanwhile, it is about the same length as a House Sparrow, but the sparrow is long of tail, the owl short, and the difference made by subtracting the almost weightless length of tail makes the owl 30-50% heavier than the sparrow, and thus not smaller as he would have it. I don’t know anyone who is familiar with those two birds who would offhandedly say an Elf Owl is smaller than a House Sparrow.
Again, it makes me suspicious of other details in the book. Indeed, the one other field in which I have some considerable experience, hunting, is alluded to in the book several times, mostly in service to discussions about collecting on Attu. Most of it is vague, but one detail, waxed poetically I believe, is either totally wrong, or else the person involved in the act described is a total moron (of which there is no other indication): Obmascik describes the collection of a Pechora Pipit by a collector using buckshot. Buckshot is a specific size of pellet used in shotgun shells. It is designed, as its name would imply, for bringing down deer (‘buck’shot – get it?). There are few in a cartridge, and they are large. And blasted from a shotgun, if one were so unbelievably lucky as to actually hit a Pechora Pipit, one would only be collecting what I would call smithereens – some slivers of meat and bone and a few feathers. That collector would not be in business very long. In actuality, using a shotgun to collect pipits would be a better use for #8 or #9 pellets, a group of sizes in part known collectively as ‘birdshot’. I suspect this was just an unresearched use of a term in another field and another ding in credibility.
It even extends to the index. In trying to refind a reference to Baird’s Sparrow, I came across an entry for “snatch sparrow”. You can look it up yourself. Perhaps that was some intern’s idea of a joke (especially in light of page 99, where one is directed, being partly about one birder’s return to his wife after time on the road). Or perhaps the index was just computer generated and no one proofed it.
Back to that earlier credibility point: I now don’t know whether things are ‘correct’ for instance in his descriptions of Amish and Mennonite life, things he did not know before writing The Big Year, and doesn’t appear he’s become obsessed enough about to join the communities; or about his examination of Greg Miller’s job to fix thousands of lines of nuclear code ahead of Y2K; or details of the symphonic music wafting through Aspen. Those are things I'd like to walk away having gained as real knowledge, things to enrich my life, but again, if he didn’t get the bird things right, did he get this other stuff right?
It would take me a lot of space here to list all the bird errors. I hope you get the picture without my having to do so.
I was a closet birder until I hit my senior year in high school. I owe that to Jane Hathaway of The Beverly Hillbillies. She was the only other person on the planet I knew who was interested in birds like I was. She was fictional, a caricature, but I sure didn’t want people thinking of me like they must have thought of her. So I went about my business quietly.
The first time I ever birded with someone else, EVER, was on the Freeport Christmas Count of 1971. My family had just moved to Houston, and I was watching the news when a story came on about the count with clips of other people looking at birds, and they weren’t Jane Hathaway. A number flashed on the screen, I called and talked to Victor Emanuel, and the rest, for me, was history.
I had quite an education that day, but I also knew my birds, and from that moment came a lifetime of good friends and birding partners, indeed my best friends in this life are all attached to that time. We’re older now, and we all took our obsessions different directions, but we seem to still show up at the ‘first’ Texas Gyrfalcon or the ‘first’ North American Crane Hawk, or sometimes band together and go out and find our own ‘first’ North American Roadside Hawk*. We have a certain camaraderie in that history, those histories.
Obmascik’s book deals directly with these two things – the quirkiness of birding (thank goodness folks under a certain age don’t know who Jane Hathaway is), and that birding is just another of those things humans do in groups that bind us together. Ultimately the book comes to grips with the humanity of these three obsessed guys. That’s a good thing.
I wanted to say that I was a bit disappointed that the book, the drive of the narrative, sort of fizzled at the end. But in retrospect I think it was appropriate. The big quest itself kind of fizzled out for all three of the chasers at the end of the year. For Levantin and Miller both there was a realization that some other things were more important, and the book made it seem like they finally resorted to having a little pre-mortem fun with their last few birds (even in postholing in the Colorado snow and buzzing around Nevada in the hands of a crazy chopper pilot) once it was clear they were bested.
Komito though never seemed to slow down, even if he tired, but it must be that his drive to put distance between himself and the other two made it a runaway fourth quarter and that cost him some of the joy. Runaway scores take the fun out of sport, if that’s what birding is. It’s not just about the final tally, though that big win is important; it’s about having a reason to press on, someone breathing down your neck to beat, that makes it ultimately worthwhile, that creates the biggest satsifaction.
I have to hope that the truths of the story are just that. That the personal moments, the chatter, the tricks, the worry, the tender family vignettes, portray something close to actuality. I have my questions, but not necessarily suspicions. If they are honest portrayals then Obmascik has succeeded in telling a story that has much humanity in it. It is also well-written as far as providing a tale worth reading, compelling enough to turn every page despite my cringing at the science.
And he does catch some of the flavor of competitive birding too. The seasickness on pelagics is a topic with which I have much experience. Scopelines, jostling for a view past big shoulders, battling unfamiliar environments, wolfed down 4 a.m. breakfasts, not planning for unforeseen vehicle issues, finding a way to make the few enough dollars last an extra day or two, arriving a minute too late, despair in telling someone they arrived a minute too late; all are drawn in much the way those things affect birders’ every travel scheme.
In short, we are a goofy lot.
I’m hoping the movie makes the same leap, because as fodder for pure humor we are rich. I don’t know any of the three main characters of the book, although I know quite a few of the sideline folks, but I definitely know a lot of bird people and a lot of their stories – many drop-dead funny, some heartwarming, a few tragic. In the end we are people, and if the books misses the biology often, and drives me nuts on the details, at least I can turn it into a fairy tale, and enjoy the telling of the story.
Here’s hoping the best for the movie.
A word about the movie in anticipation? Here’s some of what I glean from the clips and trailers: there’s an awful lot of CGI birds involved, and lots of them are awfully small, prepare to not be fooled by the currently bad state-of-the-art in computer generated flight; there is at least one indoor Blue Jay; it’s a cutthroat business (something I really never experienced, in fact when I was doing my runs, or was aware of others, it was all about everyone pitching in to get everyone onto the birds, so this seems a bit uncharacteristic of us, although the book tells a slightly different story); it might be a bit heavy on the exposition (anathema to a filmmaker); the book does an interesting job of telling the story of the origins of Big Years (I’m not certain it is too accurate, but it’s plausible enough), but in the film clip this is reduced to an unseemly collage of events, be prepared; and ultimately this is about comedy, thus that cohort of actors, and that director, and us as an obsessive group to be laughed at.
So I guess, when my ticket shows up, I am going to try, for once, to expect the biology to be wrong, and try to enjoy it for the fairy tale and the comedy without hyperventilating about the details. Do I hope it draws more birders to the fold? Maybe, but I’m withholding judgment until I know what kind of inspiration The Big Year is going to deliver.
Finally, I want to say that the book is an enjoyable read, and I suspect a lot of folks will love it – a lot of critics have. And despite my critique, I liked it enough that I’ve already ordered Obmascik’s other book Halfway to Heaven: My White-knuckled – and Knuckleheaded – Quest for the Rocky Mountain High. Not to worry, it’s about things I don’t know about, so I won’t be reviewing it. But Mark, if the opportunity ever comes for another reprint of your bird tome, I know a lot of details-oriented, obsessed folks who would like a crack at redlining a manuscript for you.
The Movie is in theatres everywhere (except here in Podunk, TX) beginning Friday, October 14th.
Here’s a few more clips:
* A side note about that Roadside Hawk that readers of the book will appreciate: Jim Vardaman once chewed me out a bit for not calling him about that bird – it would have made his 700th bird in his record-setting big year. I wasn’t on his golden list of reporters, and I had only had mild interest in his quest at the time as I was doing my own Texas run that year. He found out about the bird on New Year’s Day, a few hours too late to chase it.
** As pointed out in the comments below by elizabird, and as I predicted, I made an egregious error in my review of The Big Year, in that author Mark Obmascik apparently did not consult for the movie, but instead it was birder Greg Miller. this of course makes the entire point of that paragraph section moot . . .I have a reason, but it's irrelevant, it's wrong . . . so my apologies to Mark for that (mea culpa), and to Greg for that.
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