One of the great compulsions shared by nearly all varieties of nerd is the desire to share the objects of our obsession with people. Unfortunately, for birders as for most others on the geek/dork spectrum, sharing the hobby we love with people can go horribly awry.To be honest, often this is because we go off the deep end: hours in inclement weather at a landfill sorting out obscure plumage differences in gulls may be the pinnacle of art and technique in some respects, but it makes a lousy Valentine’s Day date. Going slowly and starting simple is best, but it’s so often hard to restrain ourselves.
Of course, as I said, this is by no means unique to birders. Some of my dear friends have a similar compulsion to play board games, analyzing strategy and searching the rules for loopholes and infelicities until their eyes fall out. This indoor-centric, sedentary activity could never be combined with birding, and clearly conflict is inevitable…. or is it?
For Christmas, my friends (let’s call them Matt and Molly because those are, in fact, their names) got me a copy of Gone Birding, a 1990 “VCR game” featuring the talents of, among others, Jane Alexander, Bill Oddie, Peter Alden, and (for the cover art) Julie Zickefoose. The rules seem a bit complex at first, but the basic gist is that you watch videos of birds, identify them, and correct ids earn you moves around the U.S. map-shaped board towards various hot spots like Cape May and the Aleutian Islands, where you can then collect points for rarities.
At first I thought this might be a mere novelty with little play value, but the game has two key features that made it more complex than just ‘name that bird’. First, and most significant, the difficultly level is adjustable so that people with different levels of bird knowledge can play together. My friends, absolute novices at birds, had to identify that a bird was an owl or a finch: I had to correctly name a Boreal Owl or a Red Crossbill. (Real experts are expected to give the bird’s Latin genus name as well, but I eschewed this because it’s based on 1980s taxonomy and thus potentially inaccurate. Also, I’m not a real expert.) The second is the Surprise! card, a sort of little hand grenade decorated with an adorable puffin. It inflicts a player with ticks or the runs and derails their total for the turn, or puts them in the middle of a fallout and gives them a big point boost. There are also Rare Bird Alert cards that can be used to send your opponents scurrying to the opposite end of the map and derail all their plans.
Moreover, as a way of sharing the fun of birding, it worked well enough to have lasting consequences: On our trip to Central Park the next day, we stopped in the icy wind to watch ducks (Hooded Mergansers) on the reservoir:
We even went out of our way to visit the Rufus Hummingbird again, and no one called me a nerd, despite the fact that it was cold and I was nerdy.
It’s only a shame that with the demise of the VCR as a technology, no expansion packs are foreseeable for this fun little game.
Mergansers and hummingbird courtesy of Matthew Piechota.