Caution: Big Year in progress
True confessions of a bird watcher going for his Big Year

Caution: Big Year in progress
Zach Hively - 05/09/2024

This isn’t the sort of thing you’re supposed to say out loud. It could jinx you or keep you from getting laid. But I’ll say it anyway, because I am neither superstitious nor insecure, even if I should be: I am doing a Big Year.

A Big Year, for those of you with love lives and other social interests involving human beings, is the attempt by amateur birders to spot and identify as many species of birds in North America as possible within a calendar year. We do this in hopes of becoming professional birders; although no one has yet accomplished this leap, we imagine the sponsorship deals must be lucrative.

Many birders go all-in on their Big Years. Plane tickets, motel rooms, chartered watercraft, loads of those little bird-identification books in which none of the illustrations quite match the little sucker you definitely probably spotted flitting into that tree over there, unless it was a discarded Ruffles bag or maybe a leaf: Big Years are not cheap.

Unless you do them my way.

As I write, the year is more than one-third complete. I have already knocked out many of the more exotic birds, like the raven, the crow, the robin and the rock pigeon. It took me until April to spot a turkey vulture, but I got one. So please bear these specimens in mind – along with more generally familiar finds, like whatever kind of grackle lives in Walmart parking lots – when I tell you that I am all the way up to 18 species so far. And counting!

Unlike every other Big Year birder, I have accomplished these 1½-dozen feats without the aid of a single bit of travel. Well, OK, I traveled once. But I didn’t see any birds. I am confident that no other Big Yearer can say THAT in mid-May.

Strictly competitive-hearted people might ask me why I am even bothering with this Big Year nonsense when there are much wealthier and more retired birders out there with current tallies in the several hundreds. To them, I might answer that Big Years are on the honor system and therefore any one of my fellow birders might be cheating. I might also answer that the sort of Big Year they imagine requires far more planning, patience and interest in birding than I currently have. 

That said – I think I am, nonetheless likely to win under any reasonable calculation of birds-per-mile, or birds-per-dollar. 

I mean, obviously, if you discount all those backyard birders in more bird-hospitable zones where the abundance of water and foliage and insects means you can’t even walk across your backyard swamp without stepping on a living, not-a-plastic, flamingo. Factor in my specific geography, along with my specific age bracket, socioeconomic status, BMI and need to submit a column about SOMETHING this week, and I am the odds-on favorite to crush this Big Year on a birds-per-effort basis.

Big Years aren’t all about winning, though, unless of course, I win. Even the winners don’t receive anything much beyond bragging rights and probably a nod on some blog somewhere. There is no Olympic qualifying round of birding, no Nike deal (yet!), no guarantee that you won’t feel compelled to come back and best your own record the next year, or the year after that, or the year after that, like some sort of under-appreciated Tom Brady.

Big Years are much more of an experience, a Zen art, a chance to live out the dreams many people have had their entire lives since signing up for AARP. They provide learning opportunities aplenty. For starters, Big Years are about breaking down stereotypes: birding is not purely for older people with nothing better to do with their 401(k)s. It is also for youthful people who cannot afford to do things that cost money. 

Big Years are the sort of absolutely noncommercial, unproductive, anti-capitalist endeavors that remind us what really matters: getting outside once in a while. Connecting with the world beyond our screens. Getting in tune with the cycles of living creatures beyond ourselves. Remembering that there is an inquisitive, feeling, breathing being behind (or above) every splash of poop on my windshield that I just freaking squeegeed. 

And absolutely, positively, they’re about getting laid. But not yet. Maybe next year. Can’t jeopardize the very real chance that, any month now, I’ll spot Bird No. 19.


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