The Big Year: A Tale Of Man, Nature, And Fowl Obsession, by Mark Obmascik (Random House)

If that subtitle from the title page makes you chortle like a grackle, then this is the book for you. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. The subtitle on the cover is different, and, despite nearly choking on its own superlatives, more explanatory: “The extraordinary story of the greatest bird-watching competition of all time”.

I’m ignorant of the long and illustrious tradition of bird-watching competitions that this suggests, and I suspect you are as well. Anyway, like wine, which I know a bit more about in a philistine kind of way, bird-watching apparently has its good years and bad years, and 1998 was, owing to a confluence of rare conditions, a very good year indeed. It was The Big Year, when ‘birders’ throughout the United States and Canada raced to observe and record the most and the rarest bird species in a competition that is determinedly ‘wacky’.

I nearly said ‘quacky’, but that is just the sort of word-play that is rife in this book. People who loudly proclaim a sense of humour seldom have one, and the author nudges you so vigorously and so continuously that you feel more than a little mauled by the reading experience. The publisher’s blurb says this – ahem – “lark of a read” ranks “alongside the best of Bill Bryson”, and I’m afraid it does. As with Bryson, the attitude underlying the book’s amusement towards its human subjects is condescension, and underneath the condescension, contempt: the literary equivalent of reality TV.

The author chases three particular birders across country, while they chase sharp-tailed grouse, or elf-owls, or pink-footed geese (yes, this is described as a “wild goose chase”), and anecdotes accumulate like starlings on a wire. The winner totes up 745 species, finishing strongly with a white-cheeked pintail. It’s a record unlikely ever to be beaten. Let us hope.

Christchurch Press

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Tim Tweets