Like many children, I was once obsessed with Pokémon. The show, the video games, and the card game all captured my interest for several years. It was the excitement of traveling, having Pokémon companions, and going on all sorts of adventures; yes, there was even a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a real Pokémon trainer.  But that was the downside to Pokémon…it always felt like the real adventures were just out of reach. That’s probably why I eventually lost interest, but,interestingly, not before I found birding.  After I’d been birding for a while, I realized there are many similarities between birding and Pokémon. And with so many young people interested in Pokémon, maybe these parallels can be used to generate more interest in birding.
To start off, consider the Pokedex, every Pokémon trainer’s most important tool. Akin to a field guide, it also keeps track of which Pokémon a trainer has seen and caught.

This fuels one of the main goals of Pokémon: “gotta catch ‘em all.”  The Pokedex is a lot like a life list, especially for those who bird competitively, have attempted a big year (or day), or who like to “capture” birds in photography.  Even if you’re a more casual birder (or trainer), there’s just something so exciting about getting a lifer, something never seen before. Birders and Pokémon trainers constantly strive to learn more about the world and explore the unknown. Clearly, it is about much more than checking a name off a list.

Most kids who are into Pokémon don’t just know the Pokémon; they can tell you their type, moves, forms, evolutions, the habitat and region you can find them in, and more, without even consulting their Pokedex. (Taillow? Don’t you know that it’s a flying type, weak against electric types but ground types don’t affect it, it can learn wing attack and aerial ace, lives in the forests of Hoenn, and evolves into Swellow?) Maybe some of this enthusiasm could be funneled into learning about birds, including their geographic area, habitat, taxonomy, and behavior.

In the world of Pokémon, kids can become trainers when they turn ten years old, and begin their Pokémon journey. I think that was a big part of Pokémon’s appeal to me: getting to travel across the land, see new places and Pokémon, and face challenges, all on my own without any adults leading the way. Birding feels like that too, but you can do it at any age. (However, young birders do, of course, have to listen to adults and depend on them for transportation…) At its heart, birding is about getting out there and exploring. While many activities revolve around practices, competitions, and preparing for someday when we’re older, birding is something that young people can actually do now. It shows that you don’t have to wait until you’re an adult to be in the “real” world and have an adventure.

As in Pokémon, birding can also be a great way to make friends. Many birding groups, such as Audubon Society chapters, offer guided birding walks. It can be very helpful to learn from more experienced birders. Most birders are friendly and glad to share what they know. There are a growing number of young birder clubs as well, and the birding summer camps run by the ABA and other organizations. Young birders who don’t know any others can take along a friend (who might soon become a birder!) In fact, I talk about birds with almost everyone—my friends, my English teacher, my dentist…Not everyone is a birder, but almost everyone really does care about birds, and has at least one good bird story to share if given the chance to tell it.

For those who get really into birding, there are many chances to show your skills in a competition! The American Birding Association runs a Young Birder of the Year competition each year. Participants do one or more of the following modules: Field Notebook, Conservation and Community, Illustration, Writing, or Photography. Young birders work on these from April to October, and submit their entries at the end of the competition. Taking part in the competition is a great way to improve your birding skills. Some birders compete in a Big Year, or a Big Day. Once a year, teams compete in a Big Day called the World Series of Birding, which includes a fast-growing youth division.  It’s run by the New Jersey Audubon Society, and used as a fundraiser for conservation.  These competitions can be just as intense and fun as a Pokémon battle!

Helping Pokémon is another central theme to the series. The main characters in the shows and games frequently protect Pokémon from Team Rocket, Pokémon poachers, trainers who don’t respect their Pokémon, and others who would harm them for their own profit or gain. They always stand up for what’s right. Similarly, birders learn to respect and love these creatures we share the world with. Just by watching birds, people become aware of the value of birds and the environment, and the threats they face. (Sadly, it really is a world we must defend.) All over, young birders are becoming inspired and achieving amazing things. Many young birders carry out conservation projects, protect and create habitat, volunteer, teach others and do whatever else they can dream up to help wild animals! Both birding and Pokémon give the message that kids can make a difference in the world.

But most of all, they’re similar because of “This Dream”—like Pokémon, birding is a lifelong dream, and a lifelong journey. Although sometimes it’s a challenge, birding is full of real opportunities, moments and adventures. It brings us together, and reminds us of who we are.
P.S. Who remembers this theme song?