How a mobile game can help birds in our challenging world

California Condor H9 perches on the trestles of the Najavo Bridge over the Colorado River in Arizona. Photo by Adam Dhalla

I can’t imagine a life without birds, waking up in spring without the flute-like serenade of a Swainson’s Thrush. In this world of rapid acceleration, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to ground yourself with such simple pleasures, if only for a fleeting moment. Yet wonderful experiences like this are disappearing. The growing amount of seemingly insurmountable ecological problems that threaten to kick us out of the Holocene Epoch – the stable climate we have grown to know and love over the past 12,000 years — is becoming impossible to ignore. The Amazon has been on fire for months, the ocean and its creatures are full of plastic, and the air is packed with carbon dioxide. As I’m still only a teenager, I’m a witness to my own foreboding future.

Yet optimism is still possible – in fact, crucial, to digging ourselves out of this hole we have collectively fallen into. I recently spent a little over a week in Arizona, both to attend Tucson Audubon’s Southeast Arizona Birding Festival, where I had a booth to raise funds for a mobile game I created, and for a brief side quest up north. It was both an incredible experience and an insight into just how much passion and optimism there is in conservation.

First was my long-awaited goal of finding a California Condor – the quintessential icon of the American West, once brought down to a low of just 27 birds in 1987. Through an aggressive, politicized, widely publicized, and controversial campaign of capture and captive breeding, these birds have begun to fly once again over the Southwest. I badly needed to see this rebirth for myself.

After driving straight up from the Phoenix Airport, through an improbable heat wave and flash flood, for an obligatory yet impressive glimpse of the Grand Canyon, my dad and I headed northeast to Page, straddling the Utah border: gateway to condor country. We rose at 5 am the next day and drove to Najavo Bridge, a pair of opposing (one pedestrian, one vehicle) bridges that cross the Colorado River at a dizzying height.

For birders, its biggest feature is that it is a roosting site for condors – a couple nest nearby. And as soon as we parked, I saw a large, black clump sitting on the trestles of the parallel vehicle bridge. When a car drove over the bridge, I saw it suddenly jump up and shake its feathers. Looking through my long lens, it was evident that it was in fact my target, a California Condor. The swirling pattern of colors on its head, a black ruff of feathers on the neck and a large tag on its wing. This was H9, a female, born in 2008, already 11 years old. I noticed another individual, T7, a juvenile male, on the trestles of the pedestrian bridge. Suddenly T7 flew underneath the bridge effortlessly and landed near the bank of the river. I was in awe. It should stand as a conservation success that I, born nearly two decades after the last condor was taken from the wild, am able to see them fly freely once again over the sun-baked red cliffs of northern Arizona.

Read our 2007 article about the recovery of the California Condor

Discover 10 things you didn’t know about California Condor

Fast-forward three days – I’m in the southeastern part of the state for the festival. The air is full of lighthearted conversation – friends meeting after years apart, chatting about how the birding has been, and how hot it is. I’m busy setting up the booth with my dad for my game: Find the Birds: US + Canada.

That evening, I attended a seminar and night-creatures walk to celebrate the creation of the Sky Islands Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA), which encompasses both the east (Rincon Mountains) side of Saguaro National Park as well as Mount Lemmon (Hotspot Near You No. 166), a fantastic place to bird, with a stunning amount of biodiversity.

Concept art for a forest lodge from the upcoming game Find the Birds: US + Canada. Image by Adam Dhalla

Meeting the people who had worked, many of them for decades, in conservation, was inspiring – and their passion and enthusiasm for the natural world was infectious. I’m lucky enough to meet many more such people at the festival, just as passionate about birds and the earth, whether it is birding with them on tours or talking with them about conservation.

Birding around Tucson was fantastic, exploring places such as the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area for Cassin’s, Botteri’s, and Grasshopper Sparrows, as well as Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Madera Canyon for the famous Elegant Trogon, and California Gulch for Five-striped Sparrow.

A lot of the time, I was at the booth explaining my game to attendees. Find the Birds: US + Canada will be a free download from Apple’s App Store and Google Play for your phone or tablet, about birding and bird conservation. Your character walks across simulated 2D landscapes in search of realistic birds to collect in your virtual field guide, tackling quests about environmental issues along the way. Its main aim is to act as a stepping stone for kids to become inspired to go into conservation as well as birding; in the game, birds represent the issues that face entire habitats.

I got the idea many years ago. It was a mixture of having been exposed to technology at an early age, growing up with various game systems, as well as an interest in nature that has been prevalent since I was four or five. I remember teaching my classmates about the whales I read about in first grade. It snowballed from there, helped by a magical experience with the 2011-2012 irruption year of Snowy Owls near my hometown of Vancouver that set me on a path of fascination of birds and the natural world.

And now, with the help of the National Wildlife Federation and Petricore, Inc., an award-winning indie game company, and some donors and sponsors, my grand idea might actually become a reality. Those interested in learning more can visit findthebirds.com.

This project will empower a future of conservation, a future of birds, and a future in which children will still be able to wander through evergreen-covered hillsides and listen for the eerie call of a Swainson’s Thrush.

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Adam Dhalla

Adam Dhalla is a 14-year-old photographer and birder. He is the recipient of the 2018 Young Birder of the Year Award from the American Birding Association. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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