Dorian Anderson did a Big Year like no other; getting on his bicycle (a maroon Surly Disc Trucker) on January 1, 2014, he biked south, west, north, northeast, northwest, south, southeast, and a bit north, ending the year with 618 bird species observed, 17,830 miles biked, hundreds of miles walked, a few miles kayaked, over $48,000 raised for conservation, and many good stories. If you followed Dorian’s adventures on his Big Year blog, Biking for Birds, you are familiar with many of these stories, but not the major one, the internal journey that was going on inside Dorian’s mind as he pedaled and birded: his history and multi-year struggle with alcoholism and related addictions. This added layer elevates Birding Under the Influence: Cycling Across America in Search of Birds and Recovery from a book of fun birding and travel adventures to a more complex memoir about the ways in which birding spurs self-reflection, motivates life change, feeds a need for wonder, and creates community. Plus tales of birding from the point of view of the traveling cyclist. Dorian’s gregarious personality and self-deprecating sense of humor makes even the most meditative sections one of a piece with his birding experiences, producing a good read that may make you think.
There are also surprises. As an occasional reader of Dorian’s Biking for Birds blog, I assumed that conservation and a “green” mindset were the major reasons for doing a big year by bicycle. The first two chapters make clear that although environmental concerns were a factor, his major reason for doing a big year was personal–his work as a postdoc in research neurobiology was at a crisis point, he needed to change research direction or…do something else. And more than that, the work in the lab was making him miserable and misery is not good for a man going into his fifth year of sobriety (though we don’t find that out till a bit later). A bicycling big year, which started out as a cool, interesting idea after Dorian biked eight miles to see two Northern Lapwings in Nantucket, Massachusetts, becomes an out-of-the-box way to re-orient his mind and find new direction. He is pushed and supported by the second character in this book, his then girlfriend, now wife, Sonia, who doesn’t bike for birds but is ever present in Dorian’s mind. This is also a love story, another surprise.
The crazy idea of biking across the county for birds (there have been other biking big years, but regional) is made even crazier by Dorian’s inexperience with long-distance biking. The first few chapters about the ride itself read like Charlie Chaplin slapstick, a combination of comedy and tragedy, as we “watch” a bundled-up Dorian biking in the face of a polar vortex in Massachusetts, almost getting killed on the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York City (as a New Yorker, I was open-mouthed in shock), and throwing his helmet and bike shoes into a field in a snit of frustration when he can’t mastering the clip-ons and topples over, bike and all. The book gradually settles into an enjoyable mix of travelogue and birding, bits of natural history and conservation commentary thrown in, as Dorian gradually tells us more about his personal history and his current state of mind. Wind is a big enemy, but so is loneliness as he cycles through some very desolate parts of our country. The challenges of finding birds like Greater Sage-Grouse are reminders that life is qualitatively better when you push through those challenges.
People of all ages and backgrounds brighten the ride and the book as they welcome Dorian to their homes (his blog asked for shelter and people responded, he also used a biking home-share group and motels) and help him find elusive birds (although Dorian is mostly on his own, there are occasions when help is crucial). Although you know from the beginning that Dorian will end up with 618 species, there is suspense as he searches for skulkers like Black Rail, rarities like Rufous-back Robin, and his trip nemesis, Pacific Golden Plover. There is the frustration of many flat tires and other biking mishaps (and the triumphs of patching and fixing and blog readers coming to the rescue). And there is wonder in the beauty of our country, eloquently described as Dorian cycles through the Florida Everglades, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the Redwood forests of Oregon, and even South Central Los Angeles.
This is a smartly written book. I missed some of the birding stories of the blog, which focused almost exclusively on how he got the bird and big year strategy, but a blog is not a book and the trick of writing a big year book is to craft it into something beyond “and then I got the bird.” Dorian is a talented writer and obviously worked hard to turn the raw blog material into a narrative that speaks about internal struggles without losing the immediacy of birding adventure. It’s a tricky maneuver and done well, reminding me of one of my favorite Big Year Books, Lost Among the Birds, in which Neil Hayward describes his big year against a background of clinical depression. In both books, the authors’ honesty is almost overwhelming; birders as a community tend to relate through birds only, we seldom talk about our inner demons. By crafting his big year sojourn into a tale about sobriety, I think Dorian has also created a book that will appeal to readers beyond birding circles. The combination of travel, birds, and personal history
I do have a couple of caveats, mainly that the book does not contain photos or maps. Dorian is a very talented photographer, and the excellent photos he took of birds and places during his big year, often after hours of cycling, were an important part of his Biking for Birds blog. I missed them here, though I’m grateful the blog is still active and I could view them there. A map or two of the cycling route would have been useful; I often paused my reading to bring up Google Maps so I could follow along. Again, these are available on the blog, but I’m hoping that a reprint will be able to fold in at least one map. I also wished the book included a list of the 618 birds and where they were found (again, in the blog). Other than these missing items, the book is well-designed and I love the cover, a silhouette of Dorian cycling, his four panniers visible in the outline, against the image of a giant Snowy Owl against a sky-blue background.
Big Year Books are the niche genre of birding. I don’t think there is another passion that has anything like it, books that trace an individual’s (or a couple’s, or several birders’) quest to find as many birds as possible over a 12-month period within a prescribed geographical area. But then again, what other passion has Big Years? Are there butterfly or mammal big years? (If you know of any, let me know in the comments.) Nate Swick, Frank Izaguirre, and I discussed Big Year books on the ABA Podcast in 2020.* Our main question was: What is it about Big Year books that makes birders gobble them up like candy? Is it the competitive aspect? The travel and adventure components? The strategizing on where to go when, giving insight into bird migration patterns and behaviors? The absolute craziness of it all? Or a combination of all of the above plus a big wallop of wish fulfillment?
Birding Under the Influence: Cycling Across America in Search of Birds and Recovery definitely falls into all of these categories, minus the competitive aspect. There really could be no competitive part of the journey because Dorian Anderson is the first (and to my knowledge, so far the only) birder to do a United States Lower-48 Big Year on a bicycle and only a bicycle (except for that one kayak trip). He did not ride in a car for 12 months! His journey becomes even more remarkable when you get to know his history. Infused with humor, optimistic energy, and intelligence, Birding Under the Influence is highly recommended to birders, nature enthusiasts, and readers who enjoy travelogues enriched by personal reflection. Welcome to the Big Year Book Shelf, Dorian Anderson!
* You can listen to Nate’s interview with Dorian on the ABA Podcast here: https://www.aba.org/birding-under-the-influence-with-dorian-anderson/
Thank you to Chelsea Green Publishing and Dorian Anderson for providing PDF and print copies of the book.
Birding Under the Influence: Cycling Across America in Search of Birds and Recovery
by Dorian Anderson
Chelsea Green Publishing, November 2023
paperback; 272 pages
ISBN-10 : 1645022234; ISBN-13 : 978-1645022237