Who’s The Best Birder In The World?

One of the statements set forth in the movie, The Big Year, is that the best birder in the world is the winner of the contest called The Big Year.  To me, this is as funny as the character, Brad Harris, having a limit of just one cookie–or as egregious an error as one of the many birds that are blatantly out of place in the movie.

Now I am speaking for myself.  I cannot speak for other birders.  First of all, best birder in the world should give you a big clue.  The world?  You mean the whole, entire planet?  ahaha!  Yeah, right.  The Big Year characters are doing an ABA (American Birding Association) big year–which includes the Lower 48 States, all of Canada, and Alaska.  So a person could easily win this big year without knowing a single African species, or Australian species, or…well…you get the picture.

Well, how about best birder in North America then?  This is a better question.  At least it addresses the geography better.  So what is the “best birder”?  What does that really mean?  Does the size of one’s list make that birder a “better” birder?  Nope.  I know lots of birders who just don’t get a chance to travel much, but they know their own smaller geographical area very well and have outstanding birding skills.  So does their smaller list make them a lesser birder?  No.  I don’t believe that.

Caution: personal opinion ahead.  Me?  Yes.  I am still a computer consultant.  *THAT* is my occupation.  I still do birding as a hobby and occasionally lead birding tours and field trips.  I read about birds and birding in my *spare time*.  And since my ABA Area Big Year, I have not traveled or birded as hard or as fast or as completely as I did during that year.  In fact, these days, I don’t get out as often as I’d like.  How could I possibly call myself the best birder in the world?  Or even the second, third, fourth, etc birder in the world?  I still do this as a hobby!  Almost all of my learning is purely pedantic–my learning is from books or online or magazines.  I spend less time in the field than a bird tour leader or a birder doing field research.

So then, what kind of title goes to the winner of The Big Year?  Just that.  They have the biggest list at the end of the year.  It’s a game (a fun one, mind you)–not a status symbol.  Am I saying that big year birders aren’t good birders?  No.  An honest big year birder has to (at a minimum) at least be able to identify every single bird on his list.  That is a requirement.  But really, doing a large area big year also is a measure of availability of time and the means to travel extensively.  You may be blessed with exceptional birding skills, but if you don’t have the money to travel, you will not win any big year competitions that cover a large geographical area.

I have heard a moderate amount of discussion about bird accuracy in the movie, The Big Year, but have heard little about this.  I wish many things about the movie would be different.  But then again, I am really pleased about the effort and *intention* that Hollywood displayed in the making of this film.  I have a lot of respect for the cast and crew who worked hard to capture a snapshot of our hobby and the world of birds.  In the end, we all have something we can show others without feeling ashamed.  Of course, some of us don’t worry too much at all about being called names.  We took up birding because that is what we loved.  If we really wanted to be popular or accepted (or whatever you call it) we should have taken up some other hobby.  But me?  I love birds and birding.  It will always be a part of me.

I get up in the morning and can’t wait to get outside.  I might hear a Song Sparrow burst into a pleasant melody.  That bird does not care about the European Debt Crisis, and fighting in the Middle East, or politics in China, or Hollywood scandals, or U.S. Presidential debates, or all the deadlines and stresses at work, or the higher cost of gas at the pump…you get the point now…that Song Sparrow is free.  It’s song represents the joy of not being hassled by the stresses of everyday life.  It sounds happy–and it brings a smile to my face.  It makes me feel relaxed.  It gives me hope.  Everything is going to be alright.  My day is always a better day with a little bit of Bird Song Therapy.

14 thoughts on “Who’s The Best Birder In The World?

  1. Nice post Greg! Ya know…the Song Sparrow’s song for me, especially that first song of the spring, is a soul cleansing and spiritual experience. In that moment of joy, I am the best birder in the world.

  2. Great post! I did chuckle at that line in the movie. In my limited travels, the best birders I have ever met were in Ecuador. Those guys know the songs and calls of over 1,000 bird species, are able to spot little green jobs in low light in dense foliage, AND have the patience to point them out to visitors like me.

  3. Very nice post Mr. Miller! As a birder of limited means and basically no opportunities to travel, 95% of my life list is species from within a 250 mile radius of my home in southernmost Illinois, I totally agree with your statements regarding what makes a great (or the best) birder. I’ve always viewed birding as a dart board with many levels and many levels within levels. The bullseye is what we each individually make it.

    And your second to last paragraph, bang on! I loved the movie, saw it twice.

  4. Hi, Mr. Miller,

    I saw the movie and have just finished reading The Big Year. What a pity that the story had to come to an end. I could have happily read another thousand pages.

    I’m really a Wanna-bee Birder. Although I have over 500 species on my life list, many of those were pointed out to me by other people. I can recognize only about 20 bird songs/calls.

    Anyway, thanks so much for making the Birding World a bit brighter and for sharing your skills with others.

    Can’t wait for the movie to be released on DVD so I can watch it over and over again.


    P.S. I’ve been to Patagonia State Park, and my girlfriend has been to High Island several times. We both wondered why the film makers chose to shoot those scenes somewhere else.

    • Thanks for the very kind compliments. There were many places that were substituted to reduce film costs. There were about 175 members of the movie crew and it would be cost prohibitive to fly them to all the places that the 3 of us visited. Three years of birding is hard to fit into 1 hour and 40 minutes! I can’t wait for the DVD either. Recent speculation online has a February release date for the DVD. But we’ll see. I’ve been wrong on all my other guesses about this movie.

  5. It’s not just for the birds. I so hope we all do as much as earthly possible to protect their habitats, so we and our children and theirs, will always be able to hear their songs and see their colors and flights. I think those who help this cause, are the very best birders in the world.

  6. I just watched The Big Year on HBO. How did I miss it in theaters?! Anyway, I’m new to the birding world, only for about 5 years now. I hope to travel like you did one day to see so many birds. You’re an inspiration for sure.
    I enjoyed the film very much. Congrats on having your story told in a movie and by such great actors too.

  7. I too enjoyed the movie the big year. It did capture the thrill and enjoyment of watching birds but it also made it interesting enough to the general public who has little knowledge of birding. To me birding rescued a young man who wasn’t very good at the Subjects taught at school, Who found out that he could remember every little detail about a new bird sighted. Too bad they didn’t test birdwatching in school. I would’ve aced that! 40 years later and I still enjoy the sight of each bird and i carry my binoculars wherever I go.

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