Here is how Pokemon Go is birding.

So Nintendo emerged from its decade long slump and finally released a hit, although this time it wasn’t on its own console, but on iPhone and Android smartphones. Pokemon GO basically forces users to move around (literally) to collect classic Pokemon characters through their smart phone screens in the real world. It brings out the hoarding habits of the 14-year-old child that we’ve all suppressed in exchange for adulthood.

Personally, I was never into Pokemon; I was more into pogs and nano pets. Pokemon cards seemed like a bore to me, and I liked more interactive activities. The app is just that, and I imagine it would be a challenge to find a child (or more often young thirty-something) who hasn’t played it yet. So let’s go from there. Pokemon GO gets users to walk around outside, and this will inevitably lead them to a city park, or beyond! At this very moment, I am pondering which Pokemon reside in Glacier National Park (Disclaimer: We advise against using Pokemon GO in grizzly bear habitat). Which Pokemon have lived in places that I have already been? Which Pokemon may live in this new town I have just moved to? And then, it hits me. Pokemon GO…is birding.

Pokemon GO…is birding – all birders on social media

The parallels to birding are uncanny. In a nutshell, you are on a quest to find these adorable yet intriguing creatures, and some of them are even quite rare, as you know from the years of research you have been doing. This is a real life scavenger hunt. Your Pokemon cards from your childhood are your field guide, and you’ve probably studied them so much, you don’t EVEN NEED the cards anymore (but you throw them in your backpack anyway, just in case). You’ve also conveniently got your phone camera on hand to document these rarities through the app, and the common ones when things are slow. The app guides you to the locations that these Pokemon reside, much like the BirdsEye app maps out species you are in need of for your lists. The app keeps track of the Pokemon you “catch,” just like the eBird app allows you to check off/enter species counts of what you have seen. The app creators have even gone as far as to place Pokemon in their correct preferred habitat based on terrain and landscape features. You won’t find a Squirtle in the desert, in the same way you won’t find a Herald Petrel inland (99.99% of the time). While you are out, you encounter other Pokemon players, just as birders encounter other birders, and you discuss your targets in the local area, in addition to what you’ve already seen while on the hunt. Or, if you are the anti-social player/birder, you can avoid the groups of people and take the solo route, the road less traveled to find your own rarities. Above all, you are guided by an app on your smartphone. You’d be hard-pressed to find a serious birder that isn’t guided by the BirdsEye birding apps and the eBird mobile app.

If this sounds like a stretch to you, consider the following comparisons of screenshots taken from BirdsEye, eBird Mobile, Collin’s Field Guide, and Pokemon GO.

Nearby bird species on BirdsEye (left) vs. Nearby Pokemon species on Pokemon Go (right)

Nearby bird species on BirdsEye (left) vs. Nearby Pokemon species on Pokemon Go (right)


Bird species list/checklist on ebird (left) vs. Pokemon species list on Pokemon Go

Bird species list/checklist on eBird Mobile (left) vs. Pokemon species list on Pokemon GO


Species account of a raptor in Collin's Bird Guide (left) vs. Species account of a Pokemon raptor in Pokemon Go (right)

Species account of a raptor in Collin’s Field Guide (left) vs. Species account of a Pokemon raptor in Pokemon Go (right)

Birding location hotspots on BirdsEeye (left) vs. Pokemon Pokestops

Birding location hotspots on BirdsEeye, to help you find birds (left) vs. Pokemon Pokestops on Pokemon Go, to help you find Pokemon

UNCANNY, right?!

Pokemon GO is clearly the gateway drug into birding; I reluctantly downloaded the app for some real world testing. I cannot ignore the fact that this is the closest thing most people in the world will ever get to birding, and I am wondering if some people will be interested enough in the concept to take the leap into birding. There is only one way to find out. Play the game and see where it leads me.

Anna’s Field Test

Upon signing up with my Google account, I click through some screens with the Pokemon human character “Willow,” who is here to tell me about the game. Willow proudly proclaims “I have spent my whole life studying them [the Pokemon] and their regional distributions.” And I bet it has become life-consuming, hasn’t it, Willow? I bet your significant other thinks you’re insane. Some of your personal relationships have probably even suffered thanks to your obsession. We’re not that different, you and I; It is already personal. Willow goes on to ask, “Will you help me with my research?” Of course I will, Willow. You are me. And I click to the next page, where I am able to create an avatar that looks like me, and it is more than a little creepy. I want to quit (this is ridiculous, after all). But I press on, in the name of bird science.

Anna's avatar has an uncanny resemblance to me.

Anna’s avatar has an uncanny resemblance to her.

This is where shit hits the fan. Willow IMMEDIATELY tells me there is a Pokemon nearby. What! Already? Hot damn, it appears to be in my yard. This means I have to go outside. And I am in my pajamas. You win, Willow. I will go catch your imaginary little orange dinosaur (Charmander), for the simple fact that he is real cute. That is worth getting out of my PJs for, even abandoning my hot coffee. I grab Charmander out of my overgrown garden (you sneaky little raptor), and then I add his adorable friends across the street, all of which are immediately added to my list. Exciting! While I am out, I see the neighbors cat at the church (don’t even get me started on this), and I am reminded of the reason for my actual field test of this app. Birds! I round up a few House Sparrows, an American Robin, and then I hear it. A Northern Flicker! New yard bird, attracted to the snag in my front yard. Thanks, Pokemon GO, for the new yard bird! This is way better than being a slug on my recliner in my PJs. Alas all good things must come to an end and I head to work. What ever other Pokemon that are hiding in Cut Bank, Montana, will have to wait until I get home.

At work, lightning is keeping me out of the the field, and downpours of rain keep me in the building. This doesn’t stop a Growlith from taunting me in the parking lot. I try to nab him at least 4 times throughout the day but he eludes me, in classic nemesis bird style. The day presses on; my new job is at a wind facility, and I was a little worried about the negative impacts that wind facilities may have on Pokemon. But Drew reminds me that virtual animals are immune to wind turbines. At about this point in the day, after being scolded by Drew for letting my Growlith get away so many times, I realize the game has made us both revert to our childhood. But our ridiculous conversations are all eerily similar to some conversations we have had about birds, so our field tests continue. It is dark when I get home but I see that there are Pokemon out there lurking in Cut Bank. This is clearly unacceptable and I must have them. At this very moment, I get a text from my coworkers (also birders) who are on my street hunting Pokemon so hard that their phones are nearly dead. So we set out for some Pokemon hunting (which in the dark, is more comparable to ghost-hunting than actual birding). We hit the major pokestops at some landmarks in town (mostly churches, banks, and murals), and along the way I collect 8 more Pokemon species! Including Pidgey, a very cute Pokemon resembling an actual hawk. We also encounter more cats (this town has a problem), and a handful of rabbits. In the end we’ve racked up about 2.5 miles, a victory over spending an hour watching netflix. We did encounter another group of Pokemon hunters, which says a lot, because these streets are usually pretty empty at night.

If you ARE indeed intrigued and WANT to make the leap into birding, check out the multitude of birding apps that are widely available. You can download a basic free version of BirdsEye for iPhone or Android, which will guide you to birds IN THE SAME WAY as Pokemon GO guides you to Pokemons, although not in 3D but with a mapping app. BirdsEye works in conjunction with eBird, so also pick up the free eBird Mobile app for entering checklists while in the field. Pokemon GO gave me the extra push I needed to get out of the house; I haven’t made time to explore the town, and I have barely even birded outside of work. With school out this summer, it gives kids some incentive to be active, in a world that seems to dull their senses to the outside world and physical activity in general. I am not sure how many Pokemon exist, but there are over 10,000 species of birds on this planet. And you probably can’t catch them all. But you can try. You can try really hard, and you can keep track of your sightings in lists. Endless lists. You can have a yard list, a county list, a state list, and even country and world list. Pokemon GO is birding. Doesn’t this make you want to start your own birding lists? Throw in the fact that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology actually uses the sightings submitted to eBird for research, and this is a win-win situation. Long after Pokemon GO stops trending, birds will always be here. Birds you haven’t even heard of. You could do research every day and still find new species in new locations to learn about. If this doesn’t intrigue the most hardcore of Pokemon GO players, I don’t know what will. Just remember, some of the actual Pokemon characters ARE birds!

The downfall of Pokemon GO is that people are seeing the world THROUGH their phone screens. There are already countless stories of injuries associated with not paying attention to the real world around you (walking into posts/streets/cars/each other). Use Pokemon GO with extreme caution, obviously! So here at Nemesis Bird, we challenge all Pokemon GO players to put the app away once it leads you deep into the park. Pack a day bag of snacks and water, and a mobile cell phone charger (using your camera and GPS features kills your battery!). Head out to your local state or national park, and really immerse yourself in it. Pick up a trail map, talk to the rangers on site, and ask for a place where you will encounter the least amount of people; call me crazy but I have a hunch that there are some rare Pokemon hiding in there. Once you’ve bagged all your imaginary critters, stop to look and listen. Really look, and really listen. You’ll notice bird songs you’ve never heard before. Pick one, and track it down. When you see movement in the tree, focus in on it! Chances are, you’ve just bagged a REAL critter, a REAL living breathing creature that you may have never seen before. Snap a pic. Share it with your friends and add it to your ebird list. By stepping away from technology for a moment in time, you have overcome the current plague on our society of being completely controlled by your smartphone, and you have used it to your benefit. There is no need to ditch the Pokemon GO app; but do keep using it to get out into new places you wouldn’t have otherwise gone, and welcome to the world of birding.


Resources for learning about birds

  • All About Birds – online resource from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • Merlin Bird ID (download for iOS and Android) – Cornell Lab’s top downloaded bird app that helps you identify all the birds around you
  • BirdsEye Bird Finding Guide (download for iPhone or Android) – find the birds around you based on decades of eBird observations.
  • eBird – submit your sightings, track your lists, contribute to conservation