Review: "The Big Year"


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I'll start by acknowledging that this is my first, and perhaps last movie review. On the recommendation of American Birding Association President Jeff Gordon, I went to see "The Big Year" with several birding friends. We started the evening by hosting a BYOI (bring your own ingredients) homemade pizza dinner. Delicious pizzas and fabulous company made the evening a success before we ever left for the theater.

Our group included three birding couples and my daughter Lilly, who has endured 20 years of having a fanatical birding parent. All of us had seen trailers for this film and heard informal reviews from others who had already seen it, thus we knew to rein in our expectations.

If you go to this movie hoping for an introspective look at the culture of birding and those who engage in doing big years, you are likely to be disappointed. The stars occupying the leading roles--Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson--are all comedic actors, thus there were some expected episodes aimed at getting laughs. This movie was not made by birders and it is clear that consultations with birding experts were limited.

The plot fully abandoned reality with the rather random discovery of a Great Spotted Woodpecker somewhere in Oregon (no North American records away from Alaska) and a Pink-footed Goose supposedly wintering by itself in a montane puddle. Both of these twists brought groans from our group. The simultaneous convergence of flying birds and a man swarm of birders on a Gulf Coast woodland in the "fallout" scene (shown in trailers) was equally unrealistic. In that same scene Wilson's "Kenny Bostick" frenetically runs about as he ticks off species. Aside from sprinting to get a better view of a flying bird, or moving quickly to get to where a rare bird is known to be stationed, I've never seen birders behave in this manner.

If you go to this movie expecting to laugh and to be entertained, chances are you'll come away  satisfied. On some level, the triumvirate of primary characters were all representative of birding personalities that one might encounter. Jack Black's "Brad Harris" was the most engaging and easiest to root for. He traveled and ate on the cheap and maxed out multiple credit cards (including his mother's) in a quest to give meaning to an otherwise unsatisfied existence. He seems to find more joy from birding than his counterparts. In my favorite scene, Harris reveals a bit of himself as he shares his affinity for the American Golden Plover with his dad, who is played by Brian Dennehy. 

Meanwhile, his competitors demonstrated no apparent limits to the depth of their pockets. Bostick, who was doing his second consecutive big year, supposedly owns a roofing company, but was not shown doing a single day's work during the movie. I found it hard to believe that a contracting business might survive or produce an income when the owner doesn't work for two years straight. Martin's well-healed "Stu Preissler," is chauffeured about in limos and various aircraft with his name on the side. A retiring corporate executive/owner, Preissler has worked and waited a lifetime to chase his big year dreams. His stable home life and spousal support are juxtaposed against Harris who is divorced and Bostick, who seemingly never sleeps in his own bed.

Ultimately, Harris and Preissler develop the sort of camaraderie and friendship that prevails in birding. Their mutual interest and shared pursuit-- knocking Bostick off of the top the listing mountain--washes away their differences in age and tax brackets. Initially unacknowledged competitors, they end up working together and rooting for one another. At the end of their big year efforts, both find peace and birding returns to being something they do and not who they are. As one who has done a big year (on a much smaller geographic scale), I could relate to their outcomes. The importance of the ultimate number of ticks quickly fades, while the journey and friendships developed along the way provide the enduring memories.

Given the sparse crowd at the opening weekend showing we attended, it would appear that even the star power of this cast is not enough to drive the masses to a movie about birding. A quick poll among our group rated this movie as about a "six" on a scale of one to ten, which approximates the three-star reviews (on a 1-5 star scale) coming from professional reviewers. As is often the case with actual birding, our evening was more about the company we shared it with than it was about the movie. 


The Jack Black character is patterned after Gregg Miller who is an acquaintance of mine. He was paid to be the “bird” consultant for the movie which was a boon to him cause as was revealed in the movie and the book, he left the big year with considerable debt and this wiped it out.

He mentioned that he was disappointed that his consulting went by the wayside in many cases but kept it in prospective that the movie is not made for birders or by birders although as a result of the movie, Steve Martin has become quite interested in birding. Gregg was happy with the film for what it is and found it entertaining. Guess I need to go see it.


A good, and fair, review, Dave. Most disappointing for me was that the director and/or writer didn’t “get” birding. Several times the characters cite their goal to be “the best birder in the world” by setting the Big Year record. What? I guess the movie makers felt that just setting a record was enough reward to make the pursuit plausible.
As you and other reviewers point out, it could have been much worse. But it could also have been much better. I would rather have watched a documentary on the Big Year competition than this fictional re-creation, but of course a documentary wouldn’t have the earning potential that a big-star comedy does.


Mmm. That last sentence in the first paragraph makes a bit more sense if it’s corrected to read “…felt that just setting a record was NOT enough reward to make the pursuit plausible.”


Did I only magine it? Or did one of the characters in the movie describe the Loggerhead Shrike as a mimic that lures other song birds to a murderous death?
Must confirm that I heard this correctly as it is wrong, wrong, wrong. LOSH not a mimic. Blatant untruth to move the plot along (if I heard what I thought I heard).
Dan Bone, Canada


An excellent and well written review, Dave.
The birding fashion police ought to write Owen Wilson’s character a ticket for bounding around the field in orange, pink and neon green!
And, yes, Dan Bone, you heard correctly about LOSH as mimic. Ugh.


I was expecting a comedy farce and actually pulled out my iPhone Birding Apps during the Great Spotted Woodpecker scene saying what the hell?? And laughed out loud when Martin’s character said that about the Loggerhead Shrike saying, “ah, come on” and a big “Huh???” out loud looking for the Goose in the mountainous snowstorm. That said, I was pleasantly surprised. It was an enjoyable romp that stretched birding plausibility a little far but I felt a birding rush a times, enjoyed the movie for what it was, and came away relieved it wasn’t worse.

Rob Biller
Elizabethton, TN


I found that the movie followed the book quite accurately on some parts and deviated drastically in others. The Great Gray Owl and Himalyan Snowcock followed the book very well. The Attu part depicted the crazy, frenetic activity quite well. The Great Spotted Woodpecker was bizarre as was the Xantus’s Hummingbird episode. The hummingbird part was acutally very easy to see as depicted in the book. Some of us from the Eastside Audubon drove up to Horsehoe Bay,B.C. and took the ferry to where we could drive to the Gibson’s Landing address. You went up a driveway to where you signed the guest book and then waited near the bird feeders for the bird to show up, as it did about every 15 minutes. We saw the bird on Jan. 9, 1998, Bostick (who is really Sandy Komito) saw thebird on Jan. 20.

I enjoyed the movie despite the discrepancies. Also, a member of our Audubon, Martyn Stewart (, provided bird sounds for the movie.


While some might have found "Stu Preissler’s (Steve Martin character) encounter with the Xantus’s Hummingbirds to be a bit cheesy, this sort of behavior is actually fairly typical for Xantus’s Hummingbird. When I was in Baja California Sur, Mexico a couple years ago, I found this species to be quite curious about humans and there were several occasions when I had them (particularly males) come to within a few feet of me, hover, and chip loudly, much as the bird did in the movie. I suspect that this depiction was pure coincidence given some of the other implausible and unrealistic bird encounters included in the plot of “The Big Year.” Like many, I was happy that this movie didn’t serve up the traditional caricature of a “birdwatcher” that so many of us loathe.

Side note to Hugh Jennings: We are sorry that your comment was initially marked as “spam.” I’m not sure what triggers our spam filter to occasionally reject legitimate posts, but thankfully it catches nearly all of the actual spam posts, which number into the thousands over the three-year history of this journal. Thanks to you and all the folks who have offered up their thoughts in response to this review.


Somewhere, Gene Siskel nods. That is an even-minded review and it’s obvious, Dave, that you put thought into what you wrote. I haven’t seen the film but I chuckled upon learning that Owen Wilson is in it— I remember him having nonchalantly carved some elaborate wedding gazebo from a single immense block of wood in “Meet The Parents” or whatever that movie was with DeNiro. Too bad they didn’t bother to delve into the birding culture more. I did flash back to sleeping in the unspeakable squalor of the Lower Base at Attu and, while in my bunk, reading the names and then- totals of Sandy Komito, Benton Basham, Paul Sykes, and other chest-beating listers, scrawled in Sharpie on the paint peeling from the moldering walls. Since I only keep one list, although it’s not ABA Area, I added that one to the wall. I can also recall smelling the “rat exhaust” from 300 m downwind. Memory lane.


Despite all the mistakes you long-time birders can pick at in the movie, I hope you will acknowledge that your pursuit has been given a moment in the spotlight that is deserved. Nothing is more likely than that many youngsters like my 11-year-old homeschooled daughter (whose science this year included a unit on ornithology) will be encouraged to continue their bird-watching. She had already begun a notebook to record the birds she has seen without knowing that there were people who kept “life lists”, so after watching the movie, she is excited to turn her little backyard hobby into something like a real life interest. We have already taken time on our Florida vacation to go birding. You all can celebrate not only Steve Martin’s newfound interest in your winged friends, but the youngsters whose interest will hopefully support conservation efforts of the future.


I know I’m chiming in late and while all the comments above are true, I most closely associate with Lavinia. This is a movie seen by non-birders and who might understand our passion. I’m thinking of taking tomorrow off to go look for a local hawk owl and my co-worker, a non-birder, asked if I had seen the movie. He had just watched it with his wife on Netflix and loved it. Now knowing I’m a birder, he had lots of questions. But in the end the movie portrayed a retired executive, a nuclear plant computer programmer, a buidling contractor… and in some other sections, other occupations like the guy who’s Big Year is cancelled when his daughter gets into Yale. A far improvement over the Jane Hathaway sterotypes from the Beverley Hillbillies.

Now some of my nitpicks:
1. Some of the computer generated birds were not done well. The Great Spotted Owl and the woman being mobbed by gulls stand out.
2. SNOWY OWL? Really? That’s your jinx bird? Even my 23 year old daughter, not a birder, turned to me and asked about that. I told her in the book it was a Long-eared Owl which is a much harder to find species and could be a jinx bird.
3. You’re in the 700’s, tired, exhausted and wait…. I hear sandhill cranes? I can’t see any Big Year birder not having sandhill cranes before 200 species let alone that late in the total.
4. The scene with Steve Martin in BC with the hummingbird may be corny to some but to me it represented exactly what it’s like to be a birder. You can be irritated, wet, cold and generally miserable when suddenly the bird you are looking for comes into sight and everything else disappears. I remember being cold, frozen on a CBC in Newfoundland on a wind-swept headland when I saw my first King Eider. I forgot all about my cold extremities. Laid down in the thin snow to watch it. Eventually the cold does creep back in but it does disappear for a time.
5. The whole movie was filmed in British Columbia so it would be fun to find out all the locations and go visit them all.



Would have been nice to have seen more of the birds, instead of having people talk about them in this film. This film is more about people than birds, unfortunately. Doesn’t even give us enough of the birds to explain why the characters are so enthused.


Fergawdsakes, get over yourself people. Movies about sports are rarely about the sport itself and often take liberties that seem like a huge deal to fans but non-fans don’t notice. Or care to notice. The pink goose scene is there to progress the plotline between the Martin and Black characters, us civilians could care less about the birding accuracy. Its a cool scene.

This movie is nothing but a huge success for birding. For instance, before watching this movie, I probably wouldn’t watch a documentary about big years. Now I eagerly would.


i Loved this movie, in fact so much it has brought me into the World of Birding. and yes maybe it was fictional at times but it was a story line for intertainment purposes not a documentary about birding. I give it 5 stars! and have joined the Birding community here inS. Florida.


I’m not a birder, but the movie opened my eyes when they showed the great spotted woodpecker and talked of how rare it is, not being seen in the U.S. except in Alaska. I live outside Bozeman, Montana and have one who visits my bird feeder several times every day including just 20 minutes ago. Because of my lack of experience in birding I compared my bird to hundreds of pictures found online to make sure. It’s the real deal.


I’m a longtime rank amateur birder and bird lover. I agree with Lavinia. Especially as my folks watched this film! I’ve been watching birds for about 25 years and it took a movie (which they tuned into by mistake on TV) to get any kind of understanding of why I might want to do what I do. Thanks Hollywood.


Well…I must say, and I am sure I will ruffle some feathers, but being a non-birder, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie.
By most of the other comments, it is obviously not a very good representation of Birding, or even birders, but it did get me started birding, which I am enjoying very much.


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