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J.K. is juggling a Big Year race - to see the most number of bird species in L.A. County in one year - with trying to complete a doctorate in physics. Rick, the president of the bird society, is nipping at J.K.'s heels in the Big Year count, always just two or three bird sightings behind him. As Trip Chair, J.K. is also under pressure to organize birding trips for the society. A Big Year is a "race against time," and as the year unfolds, J.K. finds it harder to concentrate on the last important paper he needs to publish to get his Ph.D. Yet he desires a postdoctoral position at Princeton, which would also keep his East-Coast girlfriend Anne Marie happy. With the Alpena Bird Society near bankruptcy as it stumbles into its Centennial year, and its members interested only in gawking at birds, Hospitality Queen Karen decides that the senseless killing of cowbirds in Joss Canyon, Alpena's last remaining wild land, must stop. Karen starts out with the bird society as an outlet for her ten-year-old son who has a birding mania, but as the novel progresses she's more and more frustrated by the society's lackadaisical approach to its Centennial and to bird conservation. That J.K.'s girlfriend is not a birder hasn't been a big problem so far, but as the Big Year draws to a close, the stresses on their relationship begin to show. J.K. counts on his physics supervisor to mentor his postdoctoral search, but his job prospects grow bleak. Rick's problem is that his wife Meg is suspicious of Karen's interest in Rick and jealous of the time he spends Big Year birding. Rick spends much energy on Machiavellian ruminations about how to indulge his passion for the Big Year while placating Meg. Karen does have a special fondness for Rick, but she's busy saving the cowbirds in Joss Canyon, which is now threatened by developers. Meanwhile J.K.'s "safety net" begins to dismantle until he discovers that he doesn't have the support structure to achieve the success he'd hoped for. Disappointed, J.K. retreats to the mountains. But he has one last promise to keep - to attend the bird society's Centennial.