“How many do you have so far?” my husband asks as an unidentified bird flies across our path.
“How many what?” I ask, confused.
“I know you’re counting!” he insists.
“How many times do I have to tell you,” now just un-amused. “I’m not counting birds.”
“I know you are—you’re like Steve Martin. You’re just pretending not to care, but you’re counting.”
My husband has a sense of humor that I sometimes think only I understand. We both also suffer from the same annoying OCD, only it manifests itself in different ways for each of us. For him, it comes in the form of hobbies. If there is a competitive angle, he’s hooked. He has no real interest in birds. He saw a movie that turned bird watching into a competition, or rather, we watched a movie about competitive bird watching, and now he won’t leave me alone about the damn birds.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, I highly recommend The Big Year. (No—wait—come back—this isn’t a movie review, I promise!). The film is a little slow going, but Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson actually manage to make bird watching look exciting. I’m talking “I’m so jealous I wish I was going on a year-long bird watching adventure with a bunch of other lunatics circling the Northern Hemisphere counting things that whistle and fly” super spec-freaking-tacular exciting. Of course, as one random reviewer who I can’t remember pointed out, the movie’s not really about the birds; it’s all about the ride and the relationships that develop (and break down) between the people along the way.
But movie aside, there are several ironies to be found in my husband’s recent obsession with the birds:
Irony #1: My husband rented the film that inspired the madness because he thought it looked like something I would enjoy. Usually when my husband says he’s doing something for me, it really just means he’s doing something for himself and wants me to feel good about it so that I won’t give him crap about it. But in this case, seeing as he has (had) little interest in birds or Steve Martin, I think he genuinely was thinking of me while standing at the Red Box. I, myself, had never heard of the movie, and in standard form, when he tried to explain it, my ADD kicked in somewhere after “The Big Year—it’s about …” and I have no idea what followed.
He pretended not to notice the glazed-over cue on my face that lets him know that my thoughts have moved on to my to-do list, and he went ahead and popped the DVD in the player. About five minutes in, I was incredibly confused about what, exactly, I was watching and asked, “What is this movie about again?” Sure enough, it was a film about an entire subculture I never knew existed: clearly insane individuals who are so obsessed with birds they will literally drop what they are doing to get on a plane, train, bus, boat, etc. for a chance to spot a bird that was reported to be whistling Dixie halfway across the country at that very moment. It’s kind of like Manhattan—you must be either young or rich in order to participate (unless of course you are both young and rich, in which case, have the common decency to keep that tidbit of information to yourself).
As it turns out, my husband made a good choice. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, not so much because it was an exceptional film, but more because I am always thrilled to discover entirely new universes that I never knew existed. This particular universe, while never mentioned by name in the film, happens to be known in real life as the Audubon Society. I of course had heard of these folks before, but this world was enshrouded in mystery. I had previously believed it must certainly be an uninhabited realm. Apparently, I was wrong.
Irony #2: I have no idea what it is with the people in my family and birds, but it appears to be a reoccurring theme. While I have a somewhat metaphysical (or at least metaphorical) affinity for certain specific winged creatures, I am surrounded by eccentrics who have a much more literal and therefor often annoying fascination with birds. I have made reference to my father’s wanna-be hobby in previous posts, which I am reluctant to call a real hobby because I am fairly certain it’s just an excuse to shoot BB’s at squirrels raiding the bird feeder. If it wasn’t, he’d put up a squirrel feeder and stop trying to bait the poor rodents with bird seed.
My father’s only real hobby is going shopping for supplies at BJ’s Wholesale—that and trying to keep the pastoral Sicilian tradition of afternoon siesta alive and well from his lazy boy with a glass of Dego red in one hand and the TV remote in the other. In recent years, he has taken to this hobby in his nightgown and makes sure to fall asleep attached to the giant TV headphones we bought him for Christmas while pretending not to realize that his show is still blasting full volume just to torture anyone else who might be within earshot (and who happened to chip in on the headphones). The common site of him wandering around the house barefoot in the evening wearing his plaid flannel gown with the oversized headphones on his head has earned him the new nickname, Mr. Magoo.
Mr. Magoo has the requisite bird watching books, I’m sure a fancy pair of binoculars lying around somewhere, and he refills the bird feeder religiously. He puts a block of suet on the porch railing just for the little black and white woodpeckers, who have in return dropped enough bird crap on the banister to literally peel the paint, but in spite of all these efforts, I have never seen him actually crack open the bird guide or make any genuine attempt to identify the birds he seems to be so fond of. In fact, the only real purpose this so-called hobby seems to serve (besides legitimizing his torment of every squirrel in the woods) is to add to the myriad of ways he attempts to slowly drive my mother insane.
If watching Mr. Magoo pretend to have a legitimate hobby isn’t entertainment enough, listening to my sister’s early morning bird sightings while donning my father’s blue terrycloth robe in his absence is enough to drive a sober person mad. One morning she swore she spotted a rare two-foot tall Pileated woodpecker hammering away at a tree about 50 meters into the woods. I have no idea what she was smoking on the back porch that morning, and I don’t want to know, but I would bet money it wasn’t her electronic cigarette. She knows it’s called a Pileated woodpecker because she actually opened the bird guide and looked it up. She obsessed over this thing for days, returning to the book to show me again, and again, all while describing its size with grand hand gestures and great enthusiasm. I doubted the the bird existed at all, but one morning I did in fact spot a red-headed woodpecker of some variety going after the suet. I don’t think it was more than 8 inches long measured from head to tail. I managed to snap a picture of it with my phone, hoping it would shut her up about it once and for all. While she admitted the bird bore a striking resemblance to the giant Woody Woodpecker she saw in the tree, she insisted it was merely a smaller look alike, or perhaps even the baby of the one she originally spotted.
Irony #3: If I had a totem animal, it would be of the winged variety. I have a thing with crows. My husband and I share connections through unusual synchronicities involving Hawks and wild turkeys. Butterflies, dragonflies, and hummingbirds are high up on my list. (Okay, so only one of those is actually a bird, but they are winged creatures all the same). You get the idea. One would think I’d be all on board with this whole bird watching thing, but the truth is, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do less.
Don’t get me wrong—I totally love that bird enthusiasts are probably circling the globe as I write this in search of bird variety 746 to break the record. I love even more that no proof or documentation of any kind is needed—it’s an honor-system competition! All that is required is the bird watcher actually spot the bird and add it to his list. In some cases, if he recognizes the bird’s song, he doesn’t even have to see it—hearing it is enough for it to count. No pictures, no witnesses, just his own tally of how many different birds he caught a glimpse of over the course of his Big Year.
I think it’s totally amazing an entire network of spotters has built up to support this sport, complete with hotlines you can dial for the location of recent sightings, fostering a sense of community most home towns could probably take away a lesson from. An entire industry has grown around bird watching, which has been credited with dumping more than $30 billion a year into the economy and creating anywhere between 200,000 and more than 800,00 jobs, depending on who you ask*! Tour guides whose sole purpose is to transport bird watchers earn an entire living taking people out to the middle of the ocean on their bird watching boats or flying them by the dozen to remote islands in support of this adventure. I think it’s fascinating, really. And perhaps the passion and community this hobby fosters has many lessons for us all to take away about life and relationships, our personal journeys and our connections to the magnificent creatures who we share this planet with.
What I’m trying to say is that I completely, utterly, and entirely appreciate this romantic and often unlikely band of adventurers in pursuit of creatures so fleeting and temporal. I love that their spirit is so inspiring that my husband will not shut up about the birds. But I am happy to watch their train leave the station without feeling compelled to jump on board, so I will continue to wait for my own train to come in while I allow the birds to remain unidentified and innumerable as they fly by.
- Lola and I Are Amateur Birders (poemsandnovels.blogspot.com)
- If our spiritual life was like the movie “The Big Year” (deepercriesout.wordpress.com)
- The Big Year (moviesfilmsandflix.com)