Why a Coot?

Coot Force

People admire eagles. They respect hawks. They bill and coo over doves.

Coots don’t get a lot of respect.

Generally speaking, when you hear the word coot, it’s preceded by the qualifiers “crazy old.” This seems unfair to me. At least to the birds.

I’ve been thinking a lot about coots lately. Also short-tailed shearwaters, flammulated owls and Himalayan snowcocks.

Coots I see on a regular basis, as they dip and dive in the still waters of Green Lake. Those other birds … nope. Never seen ’em. Highly unlikely to. Those being the kind of hard-to-find fowl that drive a certain kind of old coot nearly insane with a rare form of bird lust known as A Big Year. There’s a movie out now, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, based on a true story called The Big Year, which follows the obsessive lengths to which three passionate birders went to see the most birds in North America in one calendar year. It hasn’t been causing much of a stir among film critics, though reviews for the book by former journalist Mark Obmascik were unanimous in their praise for the writer’s entertaining style, and his engrossing account of a quirky subject.

I just finished reading it. I could appreciate the brisk writing style and the somewhat self-indulgent comic slant with which Obmascik attempts to keep readers from throwing the book across the room and screaming, “Who cares?”

I do care about birds. And I have always assumed that people who are birders, those who spend hours staring up into the trees in the hope of seeing some brief flash of feathers, or hearing some telling trill of birdsong, were even more passionate about birds than I. But the more I read about these guys who engage in bird watching as a kind of competitive sport – he who sees the most birds gets the glory – the more irritated I became. Well, really it was only two of them that irked me. The two who seemed to have limitless amounts of money and free time to spend, flying all over the country, throwing money around like confetti. It reminded me a little too much of modern political campaigns, where whoever has the deepest pockets can buy the most votes.

What kept me from giving up on the book was the compelling portrait Obmascik drew of the long shot – the guy who maxed his credit cards and worked killer overtime to buy himself the precious time to pursue his passion. And there was more to his story than a mere desire to win bragging rights in the birding world. His was a personal quest, undertaken in a time of personal turmoil and suffering, and for my money, he was the soul of the story.

I don’t usually read this kind of book (okay, I admit, the picture of Owen Wilson on the cover influenced me in the airport bookstore). But I’m glad I read it. Not least because of all the amazing things I learned about the birds of North America.

I might just have to get some binoculars. For the birds. Really.

Cute Coot

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