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Can bird watching be gamified?

Is this a Common Loon or a game piece? Common Loons, which have been seen this month in London, have a three-star value in the new game, Naturedex. Photo by Paul Nicholson.

When many folks think of bird watching, they will conjure up someone taking a leisurely stroll through the woods with a pair of binoculars in one hand, and perhaps a field guide in the other. To be sure, there are lots of bird enthusiasts who take great pleasure in this mode of birding.

But a recent southern Ontario news item brought back to the top of my mind the gamification of birding.

After the 2016 release of Pokémon Go, an augmented reality mobile video game, most of us noticed people playing the game on their cell phones, either on their own or with a few friends. Years ago, while on my way to a local birding hot spot, I saw a cluster of these gamers in London’s Victoria Park, it struck me that the two activities had more than a little bit in common.

Pokémon Go players were outside, getting some fresh air and exercise, often with like-minded friends. They were endeavoring to locate a range of creatures in real-world locations. At first, there were about 150 “species” of Pokémon. This number later increased.

Similarly, bird watchers are outside of course, getting some fresh air and exercise, often with like-minded friends. We are trying to locate and identify birds in various habitats, or “real-world locations.” And Ontario birders have the opportunity to see and identify more than 400 unique bird species.

Not surprisingly, I was delighted to hear a story earlier this month about a Toronto nature-lover who has created a game that merged both pursuits. In a way, it’s a scavenger hunt for adults. Natalie Rudkins launched Naturedex this year on the Reddit platform. Players are meant to get outside and find 151 species of birds, trees, insects, wildflowers, and other natural things. The goal and the of the game – and in fact the game’s catchphrase – is “Gotta see ’em all!”

These images are part of a new game called Naturedex created by Torontonian Natalie Rudkins. It is a mash-up of Pokémon Go and a scavenger hunt.

Each of the species is assigned a point value that is roughly based on how rare the species is. For example, a Ring-billed Gull sighting is valued at one star whereas a Common Loon sighting is valued at three stars.

Rudkins is hopeful that the game will encourage people to head outside to explore and appreciate the natural world through the year. “I hope it teaches people about some of the things that are around them in their daily lives." she said to a CBC interviewer. Players are encouraged to use nature apps such as Seek, Merlin, and iNaturalist to help in identifying aspects of the natural world.

There are other ways to gamify bird watching as well. Some avid birders do keep lists of the birds that they see. Platforms such as eBird welcome this because it is crowd sourcing valuable data. Because of this functionality and because eBird is a shared database, it is easy make bird listing as competitive as you want it to be.

In 2022, Kiah Jasper, a young Bruce County-based birder, completed a Big Year. He was trying to see as many species as possible in the calendar year in Ontario. Whether a birder is simply focussed on his/her/their own numbers or trying to break a record, this is without doubt a gamified, competitive pursuit. Remarkably, Kiah smashed the existing record by seeing 359 species of birds. He even had a favorite eBird checklist for a single day on which he saw 107 species.

And as ever, if gamifying nature isn’t your thing, just enjoy a pleasant walk and admire the birds.

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