Eleven years ago, when I was 6, my dad and I were taking a winter walk along Boundary Bay, in southern British Columbia, when we encountered a group of adults. My curious eyes followed the direction of their numerous binoculars and giant telephoto camera lenses. The object of their collective gaze? Several large birds, perched on logs strewn along the coastline. Their pristine white feathers glistened in the sunlight. It was an irruption of Snowy Owls, which had flown south from the Arctic tundra, in search of food.
Since that fateful day, I spend much of my free time birding in my native Canada and other countries. One thing regularly struck me when out in the field — the lack of children. Unfortunately, most kids I knew were more into video games than the outdoors, and I admit I enjoy the games, too. Certainly, they’re a fun way to pass those days in the Pacific Northwest when the stormy weather causes birds and birders alike to seek shelter.
My two hobbies converged and sparked my idea for Find the Birds, a 2D mobile game to attract other children to birds. Players travel the globe in a solar-powered ultralight. They explore realistically illustrated habitats and search for beautifully animated bird species. They collect information cards about diet and behavior, take simulated photographs, and complete conservation quests, such as recycling beach litter, putting up nest boxes, and replacing invasive plants with bird-friendly, native species.
Fast forward to the present. Find the Birds is currently being played by thousands in 47 countries. It has an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars on Google Play and the Apple App Store. When it launched a year ago, it ranked in Apple’s Top 100 Educational Games. In a recent online survey, 98 percent of people reported having a greater appreciation of birds after playing it. No fewer than 84 percent said they had an increased understanding of conservation. Quite a few spoke of volunteering with bird organizations because of the website links embedded in the game. While most of our players are 7-12 years old, there are many adults as well. As a result of its significant positive impact, I will be presenting about the game at the International Ornithological Congress 2022.
Despite the success, it has not been an easy journey. After years of failed pitches to for-profit game companies, my dad and I came up with the idea of founding a nonprofit, Thought Generation, to produce it. This decision led to us securing the bulk of the funding from the government of Canada to get Find the Birds built. We started with a birding location in Arizona as the habitat that gamers would play in. Next came a British Columbia location, and recently, we were able to add a Japan location.
We have been able to keep it free to download and play, with no in-game advertisements. This means there are no income or location barriers to accessing its educational content. It harnesses the fact that children are regularly on phones and tablets, serving as a bridge from screen time to green time.
Author Brian “Fox” Ellis is helping create the next location for Find the Birds: the Illinois River Flyway, which launches in September. “When I heard Adam’s interview on Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds podcast, I wondered, can a game motivate kids to turn off their devices and go outside?” Fox asked. “A few days later, I showed it to some children. They not only loved it, they asked to borrow my binoculars to look at birds. I knew then that I should work with my contacts at the Illinois Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, The Wetlands Initiative, the Illinois Audubon Society, and theSun Foundation to get a young audience interested in our birding hotspots.”
The game’s content is scientifically accurate thanks to photographs, audio files, and videos provided for free by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. Our game production team work remotely, from their home studios. This means Find the Birds is a zero-carbon and COVID-19-safe educational tool. To learn more and download it, please visit www.findthebirds.com.
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.