A big year is an informal competition among birders to see who can identify by sight or sound the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area. Big years are commonly done within single US states and Canadian provinces, as well as within larger areas such as the entire world, the lower 48 continental U.S. states, or within the official American Birding Association Area (defined as the 49 continental U.S. states, Canada, and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, plus adjacent waters to a distance of 200 miles from land or half the distance to a neighboring country, whichever distance is less. Excluded by these boundaries are Bermuda, The Bahamas, Hawaii, and Greenland).
The wide publication in 1934 of the first modern field guide by Roger Tory Peterson truly revolutionized birding. However, in that era, most birders did not travel widely. The earliest known continent wide Big Year record was compiled by Guy Emerson, a traveling businessman, who timed his business trips to coincide with the best birding seasons for different areas in North America. His best year was in 1939 when he saw 497 species. In 1952, Emerson's record was broken by Bob Smart, who saw 510 species.
In 1953, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher took a 30,000 mile road trip visiting the wild places of North America. In 1955, they told the story of their travels in a book and a documentary film, both called Wild America. In one of the footnotes to the book Peterson said "My year's list at the end of 1953 was 572 species." In 1956 the bar was raised when a 25-year-old Englishman named Stuart Keith, following Peterson and Fisher's route, compiled a list of 598 species.
Keith's record stood for 15 years. In 1971, 18-year-old Ted Parker, in his last semester of high school in southeastern Pennsylvania, birded the eastern seaboard of North America extensively. That September, Parker enrolled in the University of Arizona in Tucson and found dozens of Southwestern U.S. and Pacific coast specialities. He ended the year with a list of 627 species.
In 1973 Kenn Kaufman and another birder, Floyd Murdoch, went after Parker's record. As recounted in the book Kingbird Highway, both broke the old record by a wide margin. Murdoch finished with 669 in the newly described ABA area (North America north of Mexico, essentially) and Kaufman had 666. Kaufman set a North American record of 671 species, with the addition of five species that he had seen in Baja California. Murdoch's record was broken in 1979 by James M. Vardaman, as recorded in his book Call Collect, Ask for Birdman. Vardaman saw 699 species that year and travelled 161,332 miles (137,145 by airplane; 20,305 by car; 3,337 by boat; 160 by bicycle; and 385 by foot). Benton Basham, in 1983, topped that with a total of 710. 1987 marked the second time that there was a competition during a single year, with Steve Perry ending up with 711 and Sandy Komito setting a new standard with 721. In 1992 Bill Rydell made a serious attempt at the record and ended with 714 species for the year.
Big year competitors of 1998 were the subject of a book, The Big Year, by Mark Obmascik. Three birders, Sandy Komito, Al Levantin, and Greg Miller, chased Komito's prior record of 721 birds. In the end Komito kept the record, listing 745 species birds plus 3 submitted in 1998 and later accepted by state committees for a revised total of 748. The book was adapted for the 2011 20th Century Fox film The Big Year.
In 2005, Lynn Barber did a big year in the state of Texas and saw a record 522 bird species. In 2008, she did a big year in the ABA area (see above) and finished with 723 bird species.
In the same year over in the UK, two Green cycling birders decided to have a competition. Chris Mills in Norfolk, England and Simon Woolley, Hampshire, England competed over who would see the most birds by cycling only and hence become the UK Green Year list record holder. Chris Mills won setting a record of 251 bird species.
Starting in the summer of 2007, teenager Malkolm Boothroyd and his parents, Ken Madsen and Wendy Boothroyd, attempted a big year without the use of fossil fuels by planning to bicycle over 10,000 miles to get over 400 species for the year. They started in their home province of the Yukon Territory, rode down the Pacific Coast, looping back around Arkansas to catch the Texas spring migration, then eastward to Florida. They dubbed this attempt a "bird year," rather than a big year. In the end, they covered more than 13,000 miles by bicycle and tallied 548 species, raising more than $25,000 for bird conservation in the process.
In 2010, Chapel Hill, North Carolina birder Chris Hitt set out to try to find as many different species of birds as he could in the lower 48 states (excluding Alaska, Hawaii, and the country of Canada). He became the first birder to see 700+ species in the lower 48 in a single year, finishing with 704. In the same year, Virginia birder Bob Ake generated the second highest total for a continental big year, ending the year with 731 species, an extraordinary total achieved without the benefit of the relatively unique weather effects of 1998. Also in 2010, John Spahr finished his ABA area big year with 704 species.
In 2011, Colorado birder John Vanderpoel set out to complete a big year and had spotted over 700 species before November. Vanderpoel was considered a threat to Sandy Komito's big year record of 745 species, and was reportedly the fastest birder on record to reach 700 species in a year. However, ultimately John only managed 744 birds, missing out on the record by one (or four, with Komito's revised total).
In 2013, Massachusetts birder Neil Hayward reluctantly decided to do an ABA big year. Neil reached 700 species on August 9, a full two weeks ahead of John Vanderpoel's 2011 pace. Neil ended his year on 747 species plus 3 provisionals (Rufous-necked Wood-rail (NM), Common Redstart (AK) and Eurasian Sparrowhawk (AK)). The Wood-rail and Redstart were later accepted by the ABA (the Sparrowhawk rejected by the Alaska Checklist Committee) giving Neil a final total of 749, and setting a new ABA Big Year record. Hayward recounts the story of his Big Year in his book, "Lost Among the Birds" (Bloomsbury, June 2016).
2014 saw the first continent-wide "green year", a big year executed with a minimum of environmental impact. In his rather extreme instance, Dorian Anderson bicycled 17,830 miles around the United States, amassing a self-powered, petroleum-free 617 species during his 365 days on America's roads. If Red-legged Honeycreeper, a would-be first for North American, is accepted by the ABA, he will add one additional bird to reach 618 species. Dorian visited 28 states (some twice) during his adventure and, beyond his species total, raised $49,000 for habitat conservation. He shunned all motorized transportation for the entire adventure, refusing even ferries that would have saved him sometimes hundreds of miles of riding around various bodies of water. Once hit by a car and many times nearly missed, it was a minor miracle that he survived the entire year without major injury.
In 2015, Oregon birder Noah Strycker launched a worldwide big year with the goal of seeing at least 5,000 species—roughly half of the world’s species—as he traveled around the globe. On September 16, in India, he broke the existing record of 4,341 species, set in 2008 by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, when he saw a Sri Lanka frogmouth for his 4,342nd species of the year. He finished the year with 6,042 bird species.
Strycker's record faced an immediate challenge in 2016 when Dutch birder Arjan Dwarshuis launched an effort to break it as well as raise money for the Birdlife Preventing Extinctions Programme.
In 2016, an unprecedented four birders are attempting ABA Area big years. Olaf Danielson, the pen name of a South Dakotan doctor, launched his "Bad Weather Big Year", reaching 700 species in May. John Weigel, an Australian conservationist and Tasmanian devil activist, also launched his big year, called "Birding for Devils." While not seeking to break the record, American birding activist and blogger Christian Hagenlocher's "The Birding Project" aims to attract more people to birding through a more social perspective. Hagenlocher's goal of 700, if reached, would make him the youngest to ever reach that milestone. Photographer Laura Keene, also conducting a 2016 big year, would be only the second woman to break the 700-species barrier, should she reach that milestone.
Published big year books
- Wild America (1955) by Roger Tory Peterson & James Fisher
- Call Collect, Ask for Birdman (1980) by James M. Vardaman
- Looking for the Wild (1986) by Lyn Hancock
- The Loonatic Journals (1987) by Steven Perry
- Birding's Indiana Jones: A Chaser's Diary (1990) by Sandy Komito
- The Feather Quest (1992) by Pete Dunne
- A Year for the Birds (1995) by William B. Rydell, Jr.
- Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand (1997) by Kenn Kaufman
- I Came, I Saw, I Counted (1999) by Sandy Komito
- Chasing Birds Across Texas: A Birding Big Year (2003) by Mark T. Adams
- The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession (2004) by Mark Obmascik (later the basis for a 2011 comedy film distributed by 20th Century Fox)
- Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul (2005) by Scott Weidensaul
- The Big Twitch (2005) by Sean Dooley (an Australian "Big Year")
- The Biggest Twitch: Around the World in 4,000 Birds (2010) by Alan Davies and Ruth Miller
- Extreme Birder: One Woman's Big Year (2011) by Lynn E. Barber
- Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year (2016) by Neil Hayward
- Kaufman, Kenn: Kingbird Highway: The Story of a Natural Obsession That Got a Little Out of Hand; Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997, p. 16.
- "Attu Island". Retrieved 12 September 2013.
- "Interview with Sandy Komito: 745 or 748?". Retrieved 12 September 2013.
- Barber, Lynn (2011). Extreme Birder: One Woman's Big Year. Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 978-1-60344-261-9.
- Stewart, Ian. "A big green year for the birds". Yukon News. Retrieved 8 December 2011.
- Slow Birding: the big year meets the big night
- Bob's Birds and Things
- Atlantic Monthly October, 2011
- http://blog.aba.org/2013/12/congratulations-neil.html ABA Blog, December 31, 2013