The Big Year

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Podcast Transcript

Many people have hobbies—pastimes that they enjoy and maybe even spend a lot of money on. 

However, there are some people whose hobbies become an obsession. 

This is particularly true in the world of birdwatching. Some birders have spent their entire lives trying to view and count as many species of birds as possible, and an exceptional few have tried to do it in a single year.

Learn more about the Big Year and how birdwatching became competitive on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I should start out by noting that I am not a birder. However, in the course of my travels, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several very serious birders. 

I met one man who was a student in Singapore who would travel to northern Malaysia after his classes were done on Friday just to spend a few hours trying to see a rare bird before returning to his classes on Monday. 

I met several groups of birders during my trips to the Galapagos Islands. They would obsessively document everything they saw every night on board the ship. They would get excited at seeing even the smallest, simplest finches, which no one else even bothered to pay attention to. 

I’m not trying to imply that all birders are obsessive. The vast majority of them are not. However, as with anything else, from collecting baseball cards to building model train sets, some people can take things to an extreme.

Before I get into the meat of this episode, I should explain a bit about how birdwatching came to be. 

While the origins of birdwatching begin in the 20th century, it really sprang out of the 19th-century trend for collecting. Many upper-class people, especially in Britain, would collect bird eggs and stuffed birds from around the world. They didn’t necessarily visit these places or collect them themselves, but rather, people would ship specimens to them. 

In the 20th century, optics improved, and devices such as binoculars became more popular and more affordable. Instead of shooting birds and mounting them, it was now possible to observe them from a distance. 

Automobiles actually increased birdwatching, as people could now easily travel to other places to see birds they couldn’t at home. 

Groups sprang up around birds and birdwatching, such as the Audubon Society, the American Ornithologists’ Union, and the British Trust for Ornithology. Guides about birds were published, and lists were created of what birds could be found in what area.

Perhaps the most revolutionary book, for the purpose of this episode, was a 1934 book published by Roger Tory Peterson titled A Field Guide to the Birds.

Once you had lists, it wasn’t too long after when people began trying to check things off of their lists. 

One thing that many birdwatchers will do is keep a lifetime list. This is simply a list of every species of bird that they have ever observed in their life. 

How many bird species you can observe depends upon a host of factors, the biggest of which is simply where you live. If you live in a country such as Colombia, you have more species of birds around you than any other country in the world. 

If you live in the Canadian Arctic, not so much. 

The total number of bird species in the world is somewhere between 10,906, which is the number given by the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, and 11,001, which is the number given by the International Ornithologists’ Union. 

The record for the most birds ever observed by one human is held by a former American diplomat named Peter Kaestner. Depending on the list, he has observed over 9,800 species of birds in the wild. There have been 22 people who have observed over 9,000 species in the wild. 

Just as an aside, in the process of researching this episode, I’ve wondered exactly how many species of bird I’ve seen without even knowing it. I’ve been to the Galapagos, on safaris, and national parks all over the world. I’m guessing it is probably around 2,000 without even knowing it. 

Most of the serious birders I’ve met have been able to tell you the number on their life list. 

However, having a lot of birds on your life list is mostly a function of how much and how long you are able to travel. Not everyone can do that. 

Many of the first birding accomplishments were local in nature. The man who started the competition, which is the focus of this episode, was a traveling businessman named Guy Emerson. In 1939, during the course of traveling for business, he managed to observe 497 species of birds in North America. 

This single calendar year record for the number of bird species observed in North America is what later became known as The Big Year. 

Emerson’s Big Year record was broken by Bob Smart in 1952, who observed 515 bird species.

The next year, British author James Fisher and the aforementioned field guide writer Roger Tory Peterson made a huge 30,000-mile trip around North America, writing a book and filming a documentary. They claimed that they had observed 572 species. 

Then, in 1956, English ornithologist Stuart Keith followed the same route that Peterson and Fisher did and saw 594 species of birds. 

In 1969, the North American Big Year rules were formalized by the American Birding Association. Their rules held that you could observe birds in any of the 49 continental United States, excluding Hawaii, all of Canada, and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. You could also observe birds at sea within 200 miles of shore. 

Here, I should also note that the Big Year competition, and in fact, all birding statistics and accomplishments, are all done on the honor system.  You don’t have to photograph every bird. You just need to document that you saw it or that you identified it from its song. 

So, in that respect, it is sort of like the completionists club. 

In 1971, an 18-year-old high school senior named Ted Parker spent his last semester in high school going up and down the east coast of the United States searching for birds, then went to the University of Arizona in the fall, where he did more birding. He wound up with 626 species for the year. 

At this point, with official rules being established, Big Year records became something that was actually pursued for the sake of setting the record. 

In 1973, Kenn Kaufman and Floyd Murdoch both pursued Ted Parker’s record and demolished it. Kauffman ended up with 666, and Kauffman got 669.

In 1979, that record was broken by James Vardaman, who observed 699 species. Just to give you an idea of how much things had changed, Vardaman traveled 161,332 miles in his Big Year, compared to the 30,000 traveled by James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson in 1953.

In 1983, Benton Basham reached 710 species, and in 1987, two birders competed for the record. Steve Perry ended up with 711, and Sandy Komito reached 722 species. 

722 bird species in a single year was the record for over a decade until 1998. 

That year, three different birders made a serious attempt at the record. This was the year that the concept of a Big Year was brought to the attention of the public. 

The current record holder, Sandy Komito, along with Al Levantin and Greg Miller, all chased the record of 722 species. 

Sandy Komito held on to his record with 745 species, which was later updated to 748. The 1998 competition was turned into a book titled The Big Year, which was later turned into a movie starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson. 

Here, I need to explain something else. A North American Big Year isn’t just running around and seeing all the birds you can, although that is a big part of it. The American Birding Association has a list of North American birds that a Big Year is based on. 

This list is changed every year as subspecies are defined as new species, and other species that might only migrate through North America are included.

Sandy Komito saw four birds in 1998 that were not on the ABA list. He submitted all four to the state Briding Association rare bird committees. Three were approved and sent to the national association, which were then added to the list. 

The other thing is that North America, even if you just include the United States and Canada, is really big. Near Newfoundland and Baffin Island, it is possible you might get occasional birds that wander over from Europe. 

The Aleutian islands, especially Attu Island, the most distant of the archipelago, is only about 700 kilometers from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Asian birds can easily get blown off course. Birds that are not on the ABA master list. 

For example, one of the four birds not on the list the Sandy Komito saw was the Yellow-Throated Bunting on Attu Island.  The Yellow-Throated Bunting is native to China, Japan, and Russia. 

The other thing is that birds are not evenly distributed. A big year will begin on January 1 of a given year. It would not be uncommon for a serious birder to observe over a hundred species in the first few days. Easily, over 90 percent of the birds a birder might see might be observed in just the first few months. 

The rest of the year is in the pursuit of a few rare birds.

Komito’s 1998 record stood for well over a decade despite several attempts to break it. It was a testament to the difficulty of the achievement and to the integrity of the birders. To spend an entire year and come up just a few birds short on something that was entirely on the honor system says something. 

The record was finally broken in 2013 by Neil Hayward. He views 747 species on the list plus another three more provisional species, two of which were approved, giving him 749, beating the record by one. 

In 2016, the record was broken in July of the year by John Weigel, an American living in Australia who had previously set the Australian Big Year record. He ended the year with 784 species identified.

The ABA made a huge change in the Big Year rules in 2016, adding Hawaii to the list. 

This was an enormous expansion of the North American list, as the birds found in Hawaii are largely not those found in mainland North America.

This resulted in a distinction between an ABA Area Big Year and an ABA Continental Big Year.

Dave Weigl currently holds both the Continental record, which he set in 2016, and the ABA area record, which includes Hawaii, of 840 species, which he set in 2019.

Every year now, multiple people are attempting their own Big Years. Many people will now put certain restrictions on how they do their Big Year. Some have attempted it without flying, some have done it only on bicycles, and some have done it trying to photograph every species they see.

Moreover, the idea of a Big Year has spread to other countries. 

There is a world Big Year record. In 2016, Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis saw 6,852 birds in a single year. This is a remarkable achievement, considering it is ? of the lifetime list record.

Birders in many countries have done their own Big Years. In 2021, Niky Carrera Levy and Mauricio Ossa set a single-country Big Year record in Colombia when they saw 1,453 species.

There is even a Big Day record. One team in Ecuador spotted 431 different species in a single day in 2015.

While I’m not a birder, I’ve been fascinated by people who pursue a Big Year. A couple of times every year, I’ll check up on people who are attempting their Big Year to see how they are doing and to see if anyone is close to breaking the record. 

That is because attempting a Big Year requires a lot of luck, a lot of patience, and a lot of perseverance. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Peter Bennett and Cameron Kieffer.

Today’s review comes from listener Eric Suydam over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Turns my commute into an educational adventure

Gary is like my travel companion. While in reality, I’m driving my kid to school in Michigan, in my imagination, I’m time-traveling the entire world. Thank you.

I would be interested in episodes about ice hockey. 

Also, if you could mention the “best” senior women’s hockey team in all of the world, The ICE PACK. Because ICE PACK rules (all others drool.) . . . That would be great.

Thanks, Eric! An episode on ice hockey is certainly possible. And I certainly want to wish the Ice Pack the best of luck in their upcoming season.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.