Bird Watcher's General Store

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Bird Games at Home

Dear Bird Folks,

As we sit here, stuck at home, waiting for this awful virus to pass, I was wondering if you knew of any bird games we could play. We are growing a little tired of jigsaw puzzles.

– Linda, Rochester, MA


Yes, I do, Linda,

I do indeed know a few bird games. They are fairly easy to play and are totally free, which is good since the stores are all closed. But keep in mind, you get what you pay for. There’s a reason why these games are free.

One of my favorite games is to challenge someone to a yard count. I have an online customer in Poughkeepsie, NY, whom I’ve never met, yet we often compete to see who can identify the most yard birds in a single day. Sometimes I get the highest number, while other times he wins. And since the guy is a Yankees fan, losing to him is especially annoying. The rules are simple: each species, no matter how rare, counts as one point. If he sees a House Sparrow in his yard and I see a Peregrine Falcon fly through mine, we each get one point. Some folks make the game slightly more sophisticated and assign more points to less common species. In the previous example, the sparrow will still be worth one point, but the falcon might earn five points or whatever number you decide. Establishing bonus points for unusual birds adds a creative element to the game, but the NY guy and I don’t do it that way. We stick to the one-point-per-species system, mostly because neither one of us is any good at math.

There’s one other rule to consider in the yard count challenge: What constitutes a yard bird? Can it be flying above your yard? Can it be in a pond in front of your yard? If you look out your window and see an owl sitting on your neighbor’s roof, does it count? Before you answer that, think about this: What if you hear an owl calling late at night, but can’t tell exactly where it is? Should you run outside with a flashlight and a plot plan in order to pinpoint the bird’s exact geographic location? I say, whatever bird you see or hear, while you are on your own property, counts as a yard bird. I find if you keep the rules simple, people are less likely to cheat…maybe.

If you know someone who is really bird-knowledgeable, try this game. We are all familiar with the cardinal, the holy grail of every grandmother in the country. But most grandmothers would be surprised to learn that cardinal isn’t the bird’s full common name. It’s actually “Northern Cardinal.” Why northern? It helps us to differentiate it from South America’s Yellow and Vermillion Cardinals. With that in mind, ask your birding buddy to name as many North American species with “northern” as part of the common name. I’ll give you a hint: We have at least twenty of them. Or if northern doesn’t interest you, try American, as in American Robin. There are nineteen species of “American” birds. Another hint: Don’t waste your time on the Bald Eagle; surprisingly, American isn’t part of that bird’s name. Go figure.

Here’s a game for the less birdie crowd. All you have to do is make a list of celebrities (Russell Crowe) with a bird name. People from Boston will immediately write down Larry Bird, which means you’ll have to decide if athletes count as celebs. You could also allow rock bands (the Eagles) with bird names, as well as literary characters (Atticus Finch) or even cartoon characters, such as Daffy Duck or Heckle and Jeckle. OMG! You have to allow Heckle and Jeckle. Why even play the game if you can’t include those two crazies? This game can be fun, but you’ll need to set some ground rules and be ready to do a bit of arguing to defend your choices. Sometimes there is more arguing than playing, but what else do you have to do right now?

Next up is avian twenty questions. This is a bird version of the game we played in the car as kids, only now without our parents yelling at us. You just have to think of a bird species and then have everyone else try to identify it by asking yes or no questions. You probably should limit your choices to common North American birds. It’s not really fair to expect your aunt from Quincy to be able to guess Pacific-slope Flycatcher. And you’d better know something about the bird you are “thinking of.” Besides the color, you should know what it eats, its size, its behavior, etc. A Scarlet Tanager is a common red bird, but unless you give accurate yes and no answers, you’ll have a lot of people guessing cardinal (or more accurately, Northern Cardinal).

This last thought isn’t a game, but it could chew up a lot of time. Most birders enjoy photographing birds as well as watching them. At the end of each summer, I probably have two zillion photos of Ospreys alone. I’ve been using this downtime eliminating the not-so-good photos and just saving the best. By doing so, I’ve freed up a lot of storage space on my computer. Now I can go out and take another two zillion Osprey photos again this summer.

Finally, Linda, I probably should mention Wingspan, a rather popular board game that came out last year. This game is excellent, but there are a few drawbacks. First of all, it’s not cheap (cheep?), often selling for over a hundred bucks online. Also, there’s a learning curve. I’ve watched four different instructional videos and have had two college students attempt to teach me, and I’m still struggling. I’m supposed to play it again tonight and if I don’t catch on this time, I’m going to switch to doing something else…like watching Heckle and Jeckle. That’s more my speed.