Latest For the Birds column: Birding and Pokemon

Photo by Chris Bosak cGreat Egret in Central Park, NYC.

Photo by Chris Bosak
Great Egret in Central Park, NYC.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.

There I was, taking the train to New York City with the ultimate goal of visiting Central Park. It’s something I used to do fairly often during spring migration.

Central Park is a hub for birds, and therefore birders, in the spring. Only this time I wasn’t going birdwatching — not really anyway — I was looking for Pokémon characters.

Technically I wasn’t the one looking for them. I don’t know the first thing about the game or why it’s the hottest thing since the Hula hoop. I brought my boys down to Central Park as they got caught up in the Pokémon Go hysteria. I was there to keep my eye on them and maybe casually look for some birds along the way.

We arrived at Grand Central and started our walk down Fifth Avenue to Central Park. The excitement around the craze was palpable even as we were still far away from the park. It seemed that about half the people on the sidewalk had their phones in front them and were clearly playing the game. Once we arrived at the golden statue at the entrance to the park, it was clear that this was Pokémon Go central.

We lingered briefly before headed down a trail into the park. As I watched people stopping and pointing and getting excited about their finds it hit me — this craze shares a lot of similarities with birdwatching.

The fact that we were in Central Park, where I had done so much birdwatching before, only solidified my thoughts. Birdwatchers are a tightknit group that seek out rare finds, but also appreciate the common ones. I learned enough about the Pokémon Go game to realize that this is what all these people were doing as well – looking for rare characters, but also capturing ones they had already.

As I had that thought, I looked across “The Pond” and saw a Black-crowned Night Heron land on a fallen tree that was already occupied by a few Double-crested Cormorants. A Solitary Sandpiper hunted along the near shoreline. They were fitting sights to accompany that thought. Here I was getting excited about seeing a cool bird, while thousands of people around me were getting excited with their own finds. We were all outside, we were all walking, and we were all seeking.

I did an Internet search a few days after our trip and noticed that some others have made the same comparison. It is a bit of a stretch, but at the same time not really.

There are some glaring differences, of course, the most obvious and prominent being that the birdwatchers are looking for real, living things, while the Pokémon players are looking for computer generated images that randomly pop up on their phones.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, is the diversity of the people enjoying the hobbies. Pokémon drew literally thousands of people to Central Park and the people doing it were as diverse as the city itself. All ages and ethnicities. Male and female. A lot of families, too. They were all sharing a passion for the same thing.

Sadly, from my experience, birding is not so diverse. It is better than it was and some people are making it their mission to increase diversity in the hobby, but there’s long way to go. I don’t typically see a lot of families out birdwatching together either. I do on occasion, but it is a rate sighting indeed.

Another difference between birdwatching and Pokémon Go is that birding will have much more staying power. I am guessing here of course, but I can see this Pokémon Go craze being just another flash-in-the-pan fad. Birdwatching has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for centuries to come.

Yes, Pokémon is vastly more popular at the moment but how long will it last? These games rarely flourish for the long haul. Remember Angry Birds? Great game, but who plays that anymore?

Years from now, maybe even mere weeks, no one will be talking about Pokémon Go. Birding, however, will be going strong.

Who knows? Maybe now that people are getting reacquainted with the outdoors more and actually discovering how wonderful it is to be outside, perhaps birding will win a few converts. Wouldn’t that be nice?