Wingspan: how birds colonized board games

Interview with Elizabeth Hargrave

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Wingspan is a game entirely about birds and it has been a wonderful surprise, being considered one of the hottest titles for 2019[1]. This is the first game from designer Elizabeth Hargrave, published by Stonemaier Games, and will be available in March this year.

In this game, the players take the role of bird enthusiasts (researchers, birdwatchers, and ornithologists) and must discover and attract birds to their wildlife preserves. In board game terms, Wingspan is an engine-building game, that is, a game in which you have to establish an effective system to generate and accumulate points. There are 170 unique bird cards in the game and, as you add them to your nature preserve, they help you do more and more on each subsequent turn. In general, forest birds make you better at getting food, wetland birds help you get more cards, and grassland birds make you better at laying eggs.

The Journal of Geek Studies interviewed Elizabeth Hargrave to understand how ornithology and ecology made their way into a board game. You can read the full interview below.


Q: To come up with a game based on birds, you must be a birdwatcher or an ornithologist, is that right?

A: Yes, I’m an amateur birder.

Q: When did your interest in birds began?

A: I’ve always been a nature lover and appreciated birds in general when I saw them, the same way I appreciated any other wildlife. I’ve always had a bird field guide and a pair of binoculars around. But I didn’t really start intentionally birding – like, going out with birds as my primary purpose – until maybe 6 or 7 years ago.

Q: What gave you the idea for a bird ecology game?

A: I felt like there were too many games about castles and space, and not enough games about things I’m interested in. So I decided to make a game about something I cared about.

Q: Did you bring into Wingspan some of your experience with birds? Your favorite species, maybe?

A: I tried to get a diverse set of birds from North America into the game, and a lot of the common ones. But some species definitely got a push just because I like them. Roseate spoonbills[2] are only in a tiny corner of North America, but it’s the corner of North America that I grew up in, and I love them, so they’re in. There’s a lot of room with 170 cards – but it’s still only a fraction of all of the species that live in North America[3].

Q: So, let’s turn to the game now. What is the players’ goal in Wingspan? How does one win in a bird game?

A: You win by having the most points. A lot of your points will come from playing the birds themselves, but you can also get points by laying eggs or by using certain bird powers. And then there are specific goals and bonuses that change from game to game. You might have the “photographer” card that will give you bonus points for birds with colors in their name, or the “falconer” that gives points for predator birds. And then there are shared goals that you can compete for, like having the preserve with the most eggs in it at the end of a round.

To win, you usually have to choose to focus on some of those things over others. And you need to think about how the different powers on the bird cards could help you get there.

Q: The game’s strategy is spun around a lot of ecology. What sort of information have you brought from the real world into Wingspan? Or, better put, how much scientific data have you included in the game?

A: There is a ton of real-world information on each card. Birds get played into certain habitats on your player mat, based on their real-world habitat. And each card’s cost is food, based on some very simplified categories of the food that the birds actually eat. And each bird’s nest type could play into the end-of-round goals.

When I could, I tried to work in real-life bird behavior for the powers on each bird. For example, predator birds go hunting by looking at the top card in the deck: if the bird has a small enough wingspan that the predator could eat it, you get to keep that card and score a point for it. Nest parasites like brown-headed cowbirds get to a lay an egg on another bird’s nest when another player lays eggs. That kind of thing.

And finally, each card has a little factoid on it about the bird, and a very simplified map of which continents it is native to. Those don’t actually come into play on the game, but sometimes they might explain why a bird’s power is what it is.

Q: Do you hope the players will learn something about the birds by playing Wingspan?

A: I hope that it’s a game that you can play primarily as a game, without feeling like you’re supposed to be learning anything… and then maybe accidentally pick some things up along the way. A lot of educational games feel very preachy to me, and that’s not my intention. But I do hope that as players interact with the birds in the game, some of the real-world information that’s there is interesting to them.

Q: Suppose a player is inspired by Wingspan to do some birdwatching of their own. Would you have some tips to offer to this fledgling birder?

A: Find a list of common birds for your area, and look for them right around where you live. Once you have a few birds that you can reliably identify, things get easier.

A pair of binoculars makes a huge difference. You don’t have to spring for a super-expensive pair right away – there are decent starter pairs for the cost of a board game. But it’s incredibly frustrating to try to ID birds without being able to see all their markings.

Find a local birding club, or hit up a birder friend – most people are happy to share their knowledge, and to have you along as an extra pair of eyes. I once caused a major freak-out in a group of more-knowledgeable birders by saying “hey, what’s that one?” – it turned out to be a golden-winged warbler, a beautiful bird that very rarely visits our area.

Download the eBird[4] app and keep lists of the birds you see. If you’re anything like me, growing your personal list will be addictive – but you’ll also be contributing to a worldwide database that ornithologists use to track trends in bird populations.

Q: Do you think ultimately Wingspan can help with bird conservation efforts?

A: As much as the industry is growing, board games are still a pretty niche hobby. But every little bit helps! I have definitely heard from gamers who have started paying attention to birds in real life because of Wingspan.

Q: Is there any takeaway message you’d like the players to get from Wingspan?

A: I always set out to make it a fun game first, about something that I love. If you have fun playing Wingspan, my mission is accomplished. If you can see why people love birds – or get interested in them yourself – after playing, even better.


This is the first published game from designer Elizabeth Hargrave. Bird art is by Natalia Rojas and Ana Maria Martinez Jaramillo, while art for the player mats and birdhouse dice tower is by Beth Sobel. Christine Santana did the graphic design. David Studley designed the solo version of the game, with help from the Automa team. Jamey Stegmaier managed the whole team, and worked with Elizabeth to develop the gameplay.

[1] McLaughlin, S. 2019. Birds star in one of this year’s hottest board games. National Audubon Society. Available from: (Date of access: 19/Feb/2019).

[2] Platalea ajaja Linnaeus, 1758 (family Threskiornithidae).

[3] There are circa 760 bird species that breed in the USA and Canada, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (

[4] eBird ( is a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Moa v Superman

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Wellington, New Zealand.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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During his heroic career Superman fought several foes. Some of these stories are truly memorable, like The Death of Superman (1992–1993), when he faced Doomsday. But many stories just ended up completely forgotten. Granted, there are some stories that most fans prefer to forget, like the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), but some are curious or weird enough to eventually deserve a fresh look. The story I’m about to tell you is one of the latter kind.

This one happened during the first years of the so-called Bronze Age of Comics (1970–1985). Comic books from the Bronze Age retained lots of elements and conventions from the preceding Silver Age, but started to introduce stories more in tune with social issues, like racism and drugs. Likewise, comics also began including environmental issues and this is the topic I will focus on here. More specifically, on extinction.


It is the first story on Action Comics no. 425 (July 1973), written by Cary Bates, illustrated by Curt Swan and Frank Giacoia. It is called “The Last Moa on Earth!” and by the title alone, you can see it is about a giant extinct bird.

It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Super– no, wait, it is actually a bird this time!

My goal here is to guide you through the story and offer some Biology inputs every now and then, explaining some things and “correcting” the bits the comics got wrong. I do know that writers should be free to invent and I wholeheartedly agree with that – it is science fiction after all! However, there are some sciency bits and pieces that are so simple to get right that there can be no excuse for giving the public wrong information.

The story starts off with hunter Jon Halaway in a New Zealand forest, being attacked by a giant flightless bird. He shoots and kills it, and decides to visit a local scientist (in Hawera, a town on the west coast of the North Island) to confirm his suspicions of the bird’s identity.

Elementary, my dear Halaway.

The scientist tells Halaway that he shot a bird thought to be extinct for 500 years and that there were once thousands of these animals in New Zealand. Both pieces of information are correct. Scientists estimated that there were circa 160,000 moa in New Zealand when Polynesian settlers arrived between 1,200 and 1,300 CE (Holdaway & Jacomb, 2000; Wilmshurst et al., 2010). There were nine species of moa in total and the Polynesians (who later became known as the Māori) had already extinguished them all by the early 1,400’s CE (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007; Perry et al., 2014).

The scientist then says that the bird was the largest of the moa species, Dinornis[1] maximus. While indeed this species was likely the largest[2], it inhabited only the South Island of New Zealand. The species from the North Island, where Halaway was hunting, is called Dinornis novaezealandiae. So the writer got the species wrong, but we cannot truly blame him: tens of moa “species” were described throughout the years, mostly because of the huge difference in size between the sexes of some species confused early researchers. Thus, the classification of moa species was really messed up until genetic studies started to be conducted from the late 1990’s onwards.

The skull of a North Island giant moa, Dinornis novaezealandiae. Source: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (specimen MNZ S.242); ©Te Papa, all rights reserved.

On a similar note, D. maximus is actually an invalid name; the valid name for the South Island giant moa is D. robustus (Gill et al., 2010). That is because “D. maximus” was a second name given to describe the same species; to avoid confusion, only the first name ever used (D. robustus) is valid in these cases.

Halaway estimated the size of the slain moa at 12 feet (approximately 3.6 m), which is quite reasonable. The largest known specimens would have been 2 meters high at their backs or 3 meters high with their necks held straight up (something that they did not do; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007). Moreover, Halaway’s dead bird was a female, which are typically much larger than males in the two Dinornis species (Bunce et al., 2003; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).

Box 1. What’s a moa anyway?

The moa belong to a group of birds called “ratites”, which also includes ostriches, emus, cassowaries, kiwi, rheas, and the extinct elephant birds. Recent research has shown that moa are not closely related to the other notable New Zealand ratites, the kiwi. Rather, they are closer to the charismatic South America tinamous[3] (Mitchell et al., 2014; Yonezawa et al., 2017). Since tinamous still retain some ability to fly, the moa’s ancestor was actually a flying bird (Gibbs, 2016).

The elegant crested tinamou, Eudromia elegans. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Evanphoto, 2009).

The loss of flight (alongside attaining a large body size) is a common occurrence on island environments where no mammalian predator is present. Other New Zealand species have also lost this ability; besides the kiwi (the typical example of a flightless bird), there are parrots (kakapo), rails (takahē) and wrens.



Halaway realizes that what he did was plain wrong. As mentioned above, during the Bronze Age comics became conscious of social and environmental problems – and extinction is a major problem, since it is usually our fault. This is important because, even though more than 350 years have elapsed after the last dodo was killed, most people still do not really grasp the idea that a species can disappear forever (Adams & Carwardine, 1900).

The “good” Mr. Halaway than devoted all his energy and resources into finding the slain moa’s egg. He succeeds and notes that the egg was being incubated in a hot spring with “strange fumes”. The egg was really big and appear egg-shaped in one panel and spherical in the other. Moa’s eggs were not spherical and not that large. Nevertheless, they were quite big and the largest known intact eggs are 20 and 25 cm tall (respectively, for the North Island and South Island Dinornis).

Of course the strange chemicals will grant the baby moa superpowers; otherwise this wouldn’t be a comic book.

Halaway finally arrives in Metropolis, where he is interviewed by none other than Clark Kent. On the highway, Halaway tells Clark that he wants to redeem himself of his “unforgivable deed” and hope that scientists will figure a way to use the egg to produce more moa. The repented hunter then faints, just as the baby moa hatches and escapes, throwing the car off-balance and into a river.

Clark takes off his suit and glasses and, after he’s more comfortable in his supersuit, saves Halaway and takes him to a hospital. Now I will cut the whole weird plot short and just say that the moa created an “organic link” (whatever that is) with Halaway via a microorganism, and was draining his energy. Typical crazy comic book stuff, but that’s not the point here. So let’s get back to the baby moa.

These “clawed terrors” were actually fluffy herbivores.


Superman starts searching Metropolis for the runaway moa and eventually finds it flying. Yes, flying – without wings, the comic-book moa flies by “thrashing its feet at super-speed”. In fact, Superman notices that the moa can fly faster than a super-sonic jet.

Also, even though just a few hours had passed since the moa escaped, when Superman found it, the bird had already doubled in size. And these were not the only superpowers granted to the moa by the mysterious fumes.

Yep, you read it right – that moa is flying with its feet.

Box 2. The moa’s archnemesis

The moa were herbivores, browsing on several types of leafy herbs, shrubs and trees (Wood et al., 2008). They were so abundant that it is thought their presence in New Zealand resulted in the evolution of a set of counter-measures in some plant lineages, which have small and hardened leaves, and sometimes also spines (Greenwood & Atkinson, 1977; Cooper et al., 1993; Worthy & Holdaway, 2002). But who ate the moa? Well, they were were so large that one would think they had no natural predators before the hungry Polynesians arrived. But that would be wrong – moa were hunted by giant eagles.

Naturally one would think of this – it is New Zealand after all! Source: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012), screen capture.

They are known as Haast’s eagles, after the naturalist who first described them, Sir Johann von Haast. They are the largest known true raptors, in both size and weight. They could reach a 2.6 m wingspan (somewhat smallish for their bulk) and 16 kg in weight, with females being larger (Brathwaite, 1992; Tennyson & Martinson, 2007). To hunt and eat their massive prey, Haast’s eagles had strong legs and feet, with huge claws. Unfortunately, these amazing birds could not survive after the moa became extinct and likely did not last much longer than 1,400 CE (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).

The skull of a Haast’s eagle, Aquila moorei. Source: Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (specimen MNZ S. 22473); ©Te Papa, all rights reserved.


The moa also gained the ability to use its feathers as projectiles that could even pierce an elephant’s hide (according to Superman). Needless to say, birds cannot do that unless they are also Pokémon. Finally, the moa could instantly regrow lost limbs, a feat that few heroes (and absolutely no birds) can achieve.

Giant Moa uses Feather Barrage. It’s not very effective…
Holy regeneration, Batman!

After some more fighting, Superman understands that the bird just wants to go back home – to that place with the fumes and the lonely pink flower. Superman realizes that the flower is a “Quixa blossom”, as he calls it, and says it is a rare plant found only in northwest New Zealand.

Since my knowledge of plants is fairly limited, I asked a New Zealand botanist for help with this one. I was told that there is no flower with that name in the country and actually nothing that even remotely looks like it.

The “Quixa blossom” is actually the least believable thing in this whole story.

In any event, Superman finds the moa’s home and takes it back there, thus stopping the energy draining effect and saving Halaway. Superman then proclaims the area a “moa preserve” and sets up a fence around it. A thoughtful move, but one that completely overlooks the fact that the supermoa could fly.


The story ends with Halaway saying that “the world owns the moa another chance for survival”. Unfortunately, reality is not so kind: our species has wiped the moa off the face of the Earth and there is no second chance.

Overall, if you ignore the superpowers and the “organic link” stuff, this Superman story is actually a nice portrayal of an extinct species and its tragic fate on the hands of humankind. If nothing else, I hope it has inspired a reader somewhere to become a scientist or to fight to preserve other endangered animals.


Adams, D. & Carwardine, M. (1990) Last Chance to See. William Heinemann, London.

Brathwaite, D.H. (1992) Notes on the weight, flying ability, habitat, and prey of Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei). Notornis 39: 239–247.

Bunce, M.; Worthy, T.H.; Ford, T.; Hoppitt, W.; Willerslev, E.; et al. (2003) Extreme reversed sexual size dimorphism in the extinct New Zealand moa Dinornis. Nature 425: 172–175.

Cooper, A.; Atkinson, I.A.E.; Lee, W.G.; Worthy, T.H. (1993) Evolution of the moa and their effect on the New Zealand flora. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 8: 433–437.

Mitchell, K.J.; Llamas, B.; Soubrier, J.; Rawlence, N.J.; Worthy, T.H.; et al. (2014) Ancient DNA reveals elephant birds and kiwi are sister taxa and clarifies ratite bird evolution. Science 344: 898–900.

Gibbs, G. (2016) Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand. Fully Revised Edition. Potton & Burton, Nelson.

Gill, B.J.; Bell, B.D.; Chambers, G.K.; Medway, D.G.; Palma, R.L.; et al. (2010) Checklist of the Birds of New Zealand, Norfolk and Macquairie Islands, and the Ross Dependency, Antarctica. Te Papa Press, Wellington.

Greenwood, R.M. & Atkinson, I.A.E. (1977) Evolution of divaricating plants in New Zealand in relation to moa browsing. Proceedings of the New Zealand Ecological Society 24: 21–33.

Holdaway, R.N. & Jacomb, C. (2000) Rapid extinction of the moas (Aves: Dinornithiformis): model, test, and implications. Science 287: 2250–2254.

Perry, G.L.W.; Wheeler, A.B.; Wood, J.R.; Wilmshurst, J.M. (2014) A high-precision chronology for the rapid extinction of New Zealand moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes). Quaternary Science Reviews 105: 126–135.

Tennyson, A. & Martinson, P. (2007) Extinct Birds of New Zealand. Te Papa Press, Wellington.

Wilmshurst, J.M.; Hunt, T.L.; Lipo, C.P.; Anderson, A.J. (2011) High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. PNAS 108(5): 1815–1820.

Worthy, T.H. & Holdaway, R.N. (2002) The Lost World of the Moa: Prehistoric Life of New Zealand. Canterbury University, Christchurch.

Wood, J.R.; Rawlence, N.J.; Rogers, G.M.; Austin, J.J.; Worthy, T.H.; Cooper, A. (2008) Coprolite deposits reveal the diet and ecology of the extinct New Zealand megaherbivore moa (Aves, Dinornithiformes). Quaternary Science Reviews 27: 2593–2602.

Yonezawa, T.; Segawa, T.; Mori, H.; Campos, P.F.; Hongoh, Y.; et al. (2017) Phylogenomics and morphology of extinct paleognaths reveal the origin and evolution of the ratites. Current Biology 27: 68–77. 


I am very grateful to Dr. Carlos Lehnebach for the help with flower, to Alan Tennyson for helping me to correct some mistakes on moa/eagle biology, and to Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for allowing the usage of the photographs herein.


Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a paleontologist/ zoologist who studies mollusks, but just happens to have a soft spot for giant flightless birds. He is a diehard DC Comics fan, but to be honest, he never really liked Superman. Instead, he prefers to read the stories of the caped crusader and his extensive Gotham “family”.

[1] Dinornis means “terrible bird”, just like dinosaur means “terrible lizard”.

[2] The largest tibia (a leg bone) ever found belongs to this species, being 1 m long (Tennyson & Martinson, 2007).

[3] Tinamous are not typically included in the ratites group, rather being historically considered a separate (basal) lineage and grouped together with ratites in the more inclusive “palaeognaths” group. However, the work of Mitchell and collaborators (2014) have placed the tinamous well inside the ratites.

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Douglas Adams and the world’s largest, fattest and least-able-to-fly parrot

Rodrigo B. Salvador

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Wellington, New Zealand.

Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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The system of life on this planet is so astoundingly complex that it was a long time before man even realized that it was a system at all and that it wasn’t something that was just there.” ―Douglas Adams, 1990

Douglas Noel Adams was born on 11 March 1952 in Cambridge, UK, and grew up to become one of geekdom’s most revered icons. Adams is the author of… Well, that is pretty obvious and I should not have to write this down, but I will nonetheless, just because I won’t be able to sleep well otherwise. So bear with me for a moment – here goes: Adams is the author of the trilogy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the self-proclaimed world’s largest trilogy, with five books in total[1].

However, unbeknownst to many of his fans, Adams was also an environmental activist. He spearheaded or participated in several conservation initiatives, such as Save the Rhino International. His history with conservation started in 1985, when the World Wide Fund for Nature (better known as WWF) and British newspaper The Observer partnered up, sending writers to visit endangered species to raise public awareness (BBC, 2014). Adams travelled to Madagascar in search of a lemur species, the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). As he put it, “My role, and one for which I was entirely qualified, was to be an extremely ignorant non-zoologist to whom everything that happened would come as a complete surprise” (LCtS: p. 1).

In Madagascar Adams met not only weird lemurs, but also British zoologist Mark Carwardine. They enjoyed the experience and decided to travel the world to see other endangered animals. I mean, Adams and Carwardine travelled the world, not the lemurs; the lemurs stayed in Madagascar as far as anyone can tell. According to Carwardine, “We put a big map of the world on a wall, Douglas stuck a pin in everywhere he fancied going, I stuck a pin in where all the endangered animals were, and we made a journey out of every place that had two pins” (BBC, 2014).

Their travels resulted in Last Chance to See, a BBC radio documentary series that aired in the end of 1989. The companion book (by Adams & Carwardine, 1990, henceforth abbreviated as “LCtS”) was published in the following year[2] (Fig. 1). As a matter of fact, Adams considered this book as his favorite work (Adams, 2005).

Figure 1. Cover art of the American edition of Last Chance to See (Harmony Books, New York, 1991).

Despite Adams’s calling himself an “ignorant non-zoologist”, world-renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins politely disagreed, writing: “Douglas was not just knowledgeable about science. He didn’t just make jokes about science. He had the mind of a scientist, he mined science deeply and brought to the surface… humour, and a style of wit that was simultaneously literary and scientific, and uniquely his own” (Dawkins, 2009: p. xiii).

Last Chance to See describes Adam’s and Carwardine’s travels around the globe to see nearly-extinct species, such as the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) and the northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). As one could expect, nearly all the species are mammals, since most of the public are primarily concerned with cuddly and relatable species. I, however, will focus here on the only bird on their list that got an entire chapter for itself. And I’ll do that for various reasons: (1) I am not very normal, so I am not that fond of smelly mammals; (2) it is a success story and people like success stories; and (3) this is a very funny-looking bird, I promise you.

This bird is called kakapo.


Mark Carwardine first described the kakapo to Douglas Adams as “the world’s largest, fattest and least-able-to-fly parrot” (LCtS: p. 7). His description might seem a little disparaging at first, but it was meant in an affectionate way – you cannot help but smile when you see a kakapo. Besides, Carwardine’s description is actually spot-on (Fig. 2).

According to Adams, “[the] kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right” (LCtS: p. 108).

Figure 2. Sirocco, a male kakapo, looking funny as kakapos usually do. Image extracted from New Zealand Birds Online (; credit: Dylan van Winkel.

The kakapo (or kākāpō, in Māori or Te Reo spelling) is a nocturnal flightless bird and its face resemble that of an owl, with the eyes positioned more to the front. For this reason, it is also known as owl-parrot or night parrot. Kakapos have green feathers, speckled with black and yellow (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. A kakapo looking unusually serious. Image extracted from New Zealand Birds Online (; credit: Colin Miskelly (2011).

Furthermore, kakapos are solitary birds, have a polygynous lek mating system (don’t panic, I’ll explain that later), lack male parental care, and breed in irregular intervals (with gaps of 2 to 7 years; Powlesland et al., 2006). Kakapos are so unique that ornithologists classified the species in its own family: Strigopidae. They are the very first lineage to have branched out of the parrot group (the Order Psittaciformes). Even their closest “relatives”, the kaka and the kea (also from New Zealand), are already considered to be very distinct from kakapos.

Being such an ancient lineage of parrots, researchers consider that it could have split off the rest of the parrot groups when New Zealand got separated from the what is now Australia and Antarctica around 80 million years ago (Gibbs, 2016). All the southern landmasses had been previously joined in the supercontinent Gondwana, which was made up of South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, Australia and Zealandia (Fig. 4) and was by that time finishing its separation.

Figure 4. The supercontinent Gondwana during the Triassic (circa 200 million years ago). Image modified from Wikimedia Commons; credit: LennyWikidata (2008).

This break up left Zealandia with no mammals and a bird “paradise” island started to take shape. It is considered that the kakapo followed the trend of oceanic island bird lineages (where nasty mammals are not present) to evolve larger and flightless forms (Powlesland et al., 2006). For instance, that happened with the lineages of the dodo, moa, and elephant bird.


I cannot overstate how weird kakapos are for a parrot – or for a bird, actually. Adams considered the kakapo the strangest and most intriguing of all the creatures he saw during his travels with Carwardine (LCtS: p. 105). So I’ll illustrate that by highlighting some aspects of its biology that are of broader interest or peculiar weirdness. If you, however, are looking for a complete guide to the species’ biology, do take a look at the work of Powlesland et al. (2006).

We already covered that kakapos are nocturnal and flightless, and thus have good hearing and sense of smell, alongside massive legs and feet to walk around and climb trees. Yes, they do not fly, but do climb trees to feed. Evolution works in mysterious ways, it seems. Elliot (2017) wrote: “They often leap from trees and flap their wings, but at best manage a controlled plummet.” I prefer, however, the way Douglas Adams put it: “it seems that not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Apparently a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground” (LCtS: p. 109)[3].

It seems kakapos are not able to follow the suggestion of the Hitchhiker’s Guide: “There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. (…) Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties” (Adams, 1982). Kakapos just constantly fail to miss the ground.

Overall, kakapos are quite large birds, weighing around 2 kg, but males may weigh up to 4 kg and be 40% larger than females (Eason et al., 2006; Elliot, 2017). Their life span is unknown, but is estimated at 60 to 90 years (Department of Conservation, 2018a, 2018b).

Kakapos are vegetarian and eat almost every possible parts of plants. In fact, they only breed in years with a good abundance of fruit (Cockrem, 2006; Elliot, 2017). In their current habitat, kakapo reproduction is tied with that of the rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), an evergreen coniferous tree of the podocarp family (Fig. 5). These plants bloom together every 2 to 4 years (sometimes it takes more); the kakapos must wait for the rimu because they depend on its “fruits” (Fig. 6) to feed the chicks (Cockrem, 2006; Ballance, 2010).

Figure 5. A rimu tree is really tall for a flightless bird to climb. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons; credit: Kahuroa (2008).
Figure 6. A ripe rimu “fruit”, or better put, a seed sitting on a fleshy cup. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons; credit: Department of Conservation (2002).

Unlike any other parrot, kakapos are lek breeders. This behavior is common for other groups of birds and even other animals, though. It consists in males gathering relatively close to each other and starting a competition to show off to females. Birds can do this mainly by song or dance (or both), but might also include somersaults and flying maneuvers. Each female will chose the best performer (in their opinion at least) and successful males typically mate with more than one female during a single season.

Male kakapos sing to attract females. Or rather, they do something akin to “Pink Floyd studio out-takes” (LCtS: p. 111). The most common type of call produced by kakapos is called booming. This is a low-frequency (<100 Hz) resonant call, which can be heard up to 5 km away (Merton et al., 1984; Higgins, 1999). To produce this sound, male kakapos fill up internal air sacs; they can inflate until they look like a fluffy watermelon (Figs. 7, 8). Adams described the sound as a heartbeat, a powerful throb you felt before actually hearing it; and this gave the title to the kakapo’s own chapter in LCtS: “Heartbeats in the Night”.

Figure 7. A male kakapo booming – and looking like a watermelon. Image extracted from New Zealand Birds Online (; credit: Department of Conservation (image ref 10027966, photo by Ralph Powlesland).
Figure 8. How to camouflage as a watermelon in four easy steps. OK, now serious caption: postures of a male kakapo booming. Figure reproduced from Merton et al. (1984: fig. 4). The original caption reads: “(1) Normal stance; (2) Alert static pose between booming sequences; (3) Commencement of booming: inflation of thorax while giving preliminary ‘grunts’; (4) Maximum thoracic inflation during loud booming.”

Booming also serves to indicate the male’s overall location to the female. Once they are close by, males can produce a sharp metallic “ching” call to enable females to pinpoint their exact location (Powlesland et al., 2006). A good place to hear kakapo booming and chinging is New Zealand Birds Online (http://nzbirdsonline.

The female nests on the ground, either on a spot covered by dense vegetation or in natural cavities (Elliot, 2017). Kakapos usually lay 2 to 4 eggs and the female raise the chicks alone (Fig. 9; Cockrem, 2006; Powlesland et al., 2006). Young birds leave the nest within 2 to 3 months, but remain close to their mother’s home range until they are 6.5 to 8.5 months old (Farrimond et al, 2006; Powlesland et al., 2006).

So how do we summarize kakapos? Adams gives us a nice idea: “The kakapo (…) pursues its own eccentricities rather industriously and modestly. If you ask anybody who has worked with kakapos to describe them, they tend to use words like ‘innocent’ and ‘solemn’, even when it’s leaping helplessly out of a tree. This I find immensely appealing” (LCtS: p. 121).

Figure 9. Alice, a female kakapo, on her nest with her two chicks (circa 45 days old). Image extracted from New Zealand Birds Online (; credit: Department of Conservation (image ref 10048384, photo by Don Merton, 2002).

Box 1. Kakapo names

Since there are so few kakapo left and the whole population is managed, each bird has its own name. When Adams and Carwardine visited Codfish Island, they met a kakapo named Ralph. Later on, Adams himself got to name a kakapo Jane, after his then-girlfriend (Balance, 2010). You can check this amazing infographic (by DeMartini et al.) with all the names and family trees of known kakapos: Kakapo/Dashboard1?:embed=y&:display_count=yes&:toolbar=no&:showVizHome=no.

Presently, the most famous kakapo is Sirocco, who became a YouTube star after he tried to mate with Carwardine’s head during the filming of the Last Chance to See TV series (Carwardine, 2010). Today, Sirocco is 21 years old and is the official “spokesbird” for conservation in New Zealand (Department of Conservation, 2018b), a title given to him by then Prime Minister John Key.


Kakapos were present in New Zealand long before humans arrived there: some subfossil bones have been dated from 2500 years ago (Wood, 2006). They were very common and lived throughout both the North and South Islands (Tipa, 2006), with few natural enemies. They were successful in their pre-human environment, but that was soon to change.

Polynesian settlers arrived in Aotearoa[4] between 1200 and 1300 CE (Wilmshurst et al., 2010) and became known as the Māori. As typical of all humans, they brought domestic/pest species with them: dogs and rats.

As many island species, kakapos were only concerned with their known immediate predators; these mostly harmless birds were thus unprepared for a wave of invaders. Kakapos have the strategy of staying perfectly still when facing danger, which works fine against predators that rely on sight. However, this had little effect against dogs, which hunt by scent. The parrots were hunted for food and ornamentation (for instance, the Māori used the feathers in cloaks; Tipa, 2006) and the population declined. Polynesian rats also played a major role, preying upon defenseless kakapo eggs and chicks.

European settlers arrived on the 19th century and, as one might expect, colonization (and new mammalian predators, such as cats and mustelids) accelerated the species’ decline. The Europeans also brought naturalists, who collected specimens for study at museums (Fig. 10). British zoologist George Robert Gray officially named the kakapo Strigops habroptilus[5] in 1845. Later naturalists (some already born in New Zealand) went further, observing live parrots in the wild and studying their natural history.

Figure 10. Museum drawer full of preserved kakapo specimens, from the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Photo by the author (©Te Papa, all rights reserved).

Already in the 1890’s, naturalists became aware that the species was heading towards extinction, so the first efforts in conservation (transferring animals to islands in Fiordland; Fig. 11) were undertaken (Hill & Hill, 1987). They failed and eventually the species fade out from the thoughts of New Zealanders, being considered extinct or nearly so (Ballance, 2010).


That lasted until the work of Williams (1956), which summarized all knowledge about the kakapo and brought it back to the spotlight. With this renewed interest, expeditions were formed to find the species in the southernmost reaches of New Zealand.

A serious take on conservation efforts started again in the 1970’s, when a population of around 200 kakapos was found on Stewart Island (Fig. 11; Powlesland et al., 2006). A new process of translocation and monitoring then began. During the 1980s and 1990s, the animals were all moved to predator-free islands: Codfish, Maud and Little Barrier (Fig. 11; Elliot, 2017). When Adams and Carwardine visited Codfish Island in 1992, there were only around 40 kakapos left (Ballance, 2010; Carwardine, 2010).

Figure 11. Map of New Zealand showing the locations mentioned on the text. Image modified from Wikimedia Commons; credit: NordNordWest (2009).

However, things started to look brighter after a review in the management of the species (Elliot et al., 2001). A strong and focused policy and full support of the government were essential during the decades since (Jansen, 2006). The kakapo population started to recover and can now be considered one of the greatest successes among global conservation programs – and a good example of how our species can, in fact, clean up after its own mess.

The last report, from June 2017, counted a total of 154 birds (Elliot, 2017), a number exceeding previous population simulations (Elliot, 2005). Recovering the kakapo from the brink of extinction was a feat, but more challenges remain. Presently, the species is considered as “critically endangered” according to the IUCN’s Red List (BirdLife International, 2016). Although this seems better, it is good to remember that this is just one step away from the “extinct in the wild” status in this classification scheme (which the kakapo held during two issues of the Red List in the mid-1990s). Presently, kakapos only survives on offshore islands and there is still lot of work to be done until we have a viable, and self-sustaining population that does not need human management.

Maybe just panic a little bit…

The kakapo is not the only endangered species in the New Zealand – everyone has heard about kiwis, at least. So what about all the other threatened species, birds and otherwise, in the country? Jansen (2006: 190) ominously wrote: “While extinction of kakapo is now less likely than 10 years ago, the future of the 600+ New Zealand species listed as acutely and chronically threatened (…) and that presently do not receive any management is by no means secure.” So yes, there is still a lot of work to be done.

But why should we care if some species go extinct? Why should we strive so much to save them? Carwardine (LCtS: p. 205) gave what Dawkins (2009) considered to be the typical explanations for business-minded humans: (1) we mess with the environment, everything go haywire, and that ultimately affects our survival, and (2) living beings have their uses as food, drugs, etc. However, Carwardine then presented his preferred explanation, one more typical of scientists and that we say to each other over coffee: we try to save them because they are cool. Or, as Carwardine put it: “There is one last reason for caring, and I believe no other is necessary. It is certainly the reason why so many people have devoted their lives to protecting the likes of rhinos, parakeets, kakapos and dolphins. And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them” (LCtS: p. 206).

“Up until that point it hadn’t really clicked with man that an animal could just cease to exist. It was as if we hadn’t realised that if we kill something, it simply won’t be there anymore. Ever. As a result of the extinction of the dodo we are sadder and wiser.” ―Douglas Adams, 1990


Adams, D. (1982) Life, the Universe and Everything. Pan Books, London.

Adams, D. (2005) The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. William Heinemann, London.

Adams, D. & Carwardine, M. (1990) Last Chance to See. William Heinemann, London. [Edition used here: 2009, by Arrow Books, London.]

Ballance, A. (2010) Kakapo: Rescued from the Brink of Extinction. Craig Potton, Nelson.

BBC. (2014) Background. Last Chance to See. Available from: chancetosee/sites/about/last_chance_to_see.shtml [access date: 25 Sep 2018].

BirdLife International. (2016) Strigops habroptila.  The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016. Available from: IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22685245A93065234.en [access date: 25 Sep 2018].

Carwardine, M. (2010) Foreword. In: Ballance, A. Kakapo: Rescued from the Brink of Extinction. Craig Potton, Nelson. Pp. 9–10.

Cockrem, J.F. (2006) The timing of breeding in the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus). Notornis 53(1): 153–159.

Colfer, E. (2009) And Another Thing… Penguin Books, London.

Dawkins, R. (2009) Foreword to new edition of Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. In: Adams, D. & Carwardine, M. Last Chance to See. Arrow Books, London. Pp. xi–xvi.

Department of Conservation (DOC). (2018a) Kākāpō. Available from: https://www.doc.govt. nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kaka po/ [access date: 26 Sep 2018].

Department of Conservation (DOC). (2018b) Sirocco the kākāpō conservation superstar. Available from: sirocco [access date: 27 Sep 2018].

Eason, D.K.; Elliott, G.P.; Merton, D.V.; Jansen, P.W.; Harper, G.A.; Moorhouse, R.J. (2006) Breeding biology of kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) on offshore island sanctuaries, 1990–2002. Notornis 53(1): 27–36.

Elliott, G.P. (2006) A simulation of the future of kakapo. Notornis 53(1): 164–172.

Elliott, G.P. (2017) Kakapo. In: Miskelly, C.M. (Ed.) New Zealand Birds Online. Available from: [access date: 26 Sep 2018].

Elliott, G.P.; Jansen, P.W.; Merton, D.M. (2001) Intensive management of a critically endangered species: the kakapo. Biological Conservation 99: 121–133.

Farrimond, M.; Elliott, G.P.; Clout, M.N. (2006) Growth and fledging of kakapo. Notornis 53: 112–115.

Gibbs, G. (2016) Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand. Fully Revised Edition. Potton & Burton, Nelson.

Jansen, P.W. (2006) Kakapo recovery: the basis of decision-making. Notornis 53: 184–190.

Higgins, P.J. (1999) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds. Vol. 4: Parrots to Dollarbird. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Hill, S. & Hill, J. (1987) Richard Henry of Resolution Island: a Biography. John McIndoe, Dunedin.

Merton, D.V.; Morris, R.D.; Atkinson, I.A.E. (1984) Lek behaviour in a parrot: the Kakapo Strigops habroptilus of New Zealand. Ibis 126: 277–283.

Powlesland, R.G.; Cockrem, J.F.; Merton, D.V. (2006) A parrot apart: the natural history of the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) and the context of its conservation management. Notornis 53: 3–26.

Tipa, R. (2006) Kakapo in Maori lore. Notornis 53: 193–194.

Williams, G.R. (1956) The kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, Gray): a review and re-appraisal of a near-extinct species. Notornis 7: 29–56.

Wilmshurst, J.M.; Hunt, T.L.; Lipo, C.P.; Anderson, A.J. (2011) High-precision radiocarbon dating shows recent and rapid initial human colonization of East Polynesia. PNAS 108(5): 1815–1820.

Wood, J.R. (2006) Subfossil kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) remains from near Gibraltar Rock, Cromwell Gorge, Central Otago, New Zealand. Notornis 53: 191–193. 


I am very grateful to Colin Miskelly, Dylan van Winkel, the Department of Conservation, and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa for allowing the usage of their photographs herein. 


Dr. Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist specializing in the classification and evolution of land snails. Yes, you might say, that has nothing to do with kakapos. But it so happens that the universe conspires to keep him entangled with bird work. As a scientist, he learned with Douglas Adams that knowing the right question is sometimes more important than knowing the answer.

[1] Or six, if you count And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer (2009).

[2] Later, in 1992, a CD-ROM set was published, with photos and audio of Douglas Adams reading the book. In 2009, BBC released a TV series of Last Chance to See, in which British comedian Stephen Fry took the place of the late Adams.

[3] However, he soon changed the tone to blame flying birds instead: “There is something gripping about the idea that this creature has actually given up doing something that virtually every human being has yearned to do since the very first of us looked upwards. I think I find other birds rather irritating for the cocky ease with which they flit through the air as if it was nothing” (LCtS: p. 120).

[4] The Māori name for New Zealand.

[5] Strigops means “owl-faced”, while habroptilus means “soft feather”.

Check other articles from this volume



Barbara M. Tomotani1 & Rodrigo B. Salvador2

1 Netherlands Institute of Ecology; Wageningen, The Netherlands. Rijksuniversiteit Groningen; Groningen, The Netherlands. Email: (at) gmail (dot) com

2 Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany. Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany. Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

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The video game Overwatch is Blizzard Entertainment’s new hit, released on May 2016 for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In the game, the so-called “heroes” spend most of their time trying to kill each other to secure a payload. While the morals of these self-proclaimed heroes are rather open to debate, one of them at least has some redeeming personality traits. The hero Bastion is a nature-loving animal-friend robot. Actually, the single animal to appear in the whole game (besides the hominids, of course) is Bastion’s pet bird, called Ganymede (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Left: Bastion with Ganymede (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki. Right: Ganymede (official artwork from the game). Image extracted from “Bastion Reference Kit” (official Overwatch website).

Ganymede’s design is an original creation of Blizzard’s artists, although it resembles in shape and size a northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis (Linnaeus, 1758), a common species in Canada and the USA. Cardinals usually have a red plumage (Fig. 2A), but there are rare naturally occurring yellow mutants, called xanthochroic cardinals (Fig. 2B). Ganymede also has a white area around its eyes, a trait not seen in cardinals, but well-known from species of the genus Zosterops (commonly known as “white-eyes”; Fig. 2C), which live in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia and Australasia.

bastion-fig-2Figure 2. Left: A male northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis. Photo by Stephen Wolfe (2011); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons. Center: A xanthochroic northern cardinal. Photo by Jim McCormac (2013), extracted from “Ohio Birds and Biodiversity”. Right: A Japanese white-eye, Zosterops japonicas (Temminck & Schlegel, 1847). Photo by Laitche (2016); image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

Despite being based in an American species, Ganymede seems to be native to European forests. The bird appears on its home forest in the animated short The Last Bastion (from August 2016), which takes place in the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany. There is no bird here in Stuttgart that looks like Ganymede (one of us lives here, by the way). Actually, in the whole European bird fauna, only the golden oriole, Oriolus oriolus (Linnaeus, 1758), comes close to it, with its yellow color and dark horizontal stripe across the eyes (Fig. 3). However, its slenderer body shape, thinner beak and lack of crest are all very different from Ganymede.


Figure 3. A male golden oriole (Oriolus oriolus). Photo by Pawel Ryszawa (2008); image extracted from Wikimedia Commons.

Moreover, in the Eichenwalde stage (which, in the game’s lore, is located nearby Stuttgart), there is a painting resting above the hunting lodge’s fireplace (Fig. 4). This painting shows four local bird species; one of them is the “Ganymede species”, while the others seem to be actual species: the Eurasian blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus (Linnaeus, 1758)) and two titmice. The latter are American species and seem to represent the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor (Linnaeus, 1766)), even though one of them is more bluish in color.


Figure 4. Fireplace of the hunting lodge in the Eichenwalde stage, with close-up of the painting. Screenshots from the game.

As we pointed out before, Ganymede’s design is an original creation and does not represent an actual species, although some of its features might be traced to the cardinal. Despite the problems with Ganymede’s identification, Bastion’s bird friend can also appear in the guise of actual real-life bird species. To do so, the player must simply equip a “skin” for Bastion (”skin” is basically the gaming jargon for “outfit”). By changing Bastion’s “skin”, Ganymede’s appearance may also change.

The common and rare skins (alongside the legendary Overgrown skin) do not change Ganymede’s appearance, but the epic and legendary skins do. Here we identify all the bird species that most resembles Ganymede’s look and tell a little bit about their biology.


Let’s start with the “proper” red northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis (Fig. 5A). This species belongs to the family Cardinalidae and is also commonly known as redbird, being easy to identify due to its color, black “mask” and crest. Ganymede appears as a male cardinal (females are light brown). These birds eat mainly seeds, grains and fruits, but feed their young with insects. They are found from Belize and Guatemala, through Mexico and eastern USA, all the way to Canada. The species was introduced by humans in other American states, like California and Hawaii. Cardinals are common in residential areas and visit bird feeders. They were prized as pets due to their bright plumage and song, but thankfully now have full legal protection.

Next, we have Ganymede appearing as a blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata (Linnaeus, 1758) (Fig. 5B). This species belongs to the family Corvidae (ravens, crows, jays and magpies) and has a distinct color pattern. As a matter of fact, the color pattern of Ganymede’s wings is a little bit simplified when compared to the actual bird’s complicated gradation of colors. Blue jays can be found in central and eastern USA and Canada; they eat nuts, grains and small invertebrates. These birds are typically monogamous, pairing for life; genders are similar in plumage and size. Blue jays are very intelligent, with complex social systems.


Figure 5. Bastion’s skins, accompanied by a close-up of Ganymede and a photo of the actual bird species in which he was based. Bastion’s skins are screenshots from the game; the images were extracted from Overwatch Wiki. A. Bastion’s Omnic Crisis skin. Northern cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis (photo by Stephen Wolfe, 2011; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons). B. Bastion’s Defense Matrix skin. Blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata (photo by Mdf, 2005; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons).

Bastion’s two “wooden” skins are fittingly accompanied by a Ganymede looking like two species of woodpeckers (family Picidae): the red-naped sapsucker, Sphyrapicus nuchalis Baird, 1858 (Fig. 6A; although it is also reminiscent of the pileated woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus (Linnaeus, 1758), and the downy woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens (Linnaeus, 1766)) and the Arizona woodpecker, Leuconotopicus arizonae (Hargitt, 1886) (Fig. 6B). The sapsucker, as its name implies, drills hole in trees to feed on the plant’s sap, also eating insects that are attracted to the sap. These birds can be found throughout the Great Basin region and the Rocky Mountains, in North America. The Arizona woodpecker has a more restricted range, occurring in the southern parts of Arizona (obviously) and New Mexico, USA, and in western Mexico. This species feed mainly on insects (especially beetle larvae), but may also eat fruits and acorns. Similar to the case of the blue jay above, the color pattern on Ganymede’s head, chest and wings are very simplified in relation to the real animals. Also, there is some divergence in color: while the male Arizona woodpecker has a red crest, Ganymede has a yellow one, which makes him more similar to female woodpeckers.


Figure 6. Bastion’s skins, accompanied by a close-up of Ganymede and a photo of the actual bird species in which he was based. Bastion’s skins are screenshots from the game; the images were extracted from Overwatch Wiki. A. Bastion’s Antique skin. Red-naped sapsucker, Sphyrapicus nuchalis (photo by Glenn Bartley, 2011; extracted from Glenn Bartley Nature Photography, used with permission). B. Bastion’s Woodbot skin. Female (left) and male (right) Arizona woodpecker, Leuconotopicus arizonae (photos respectively by Alan Wilson, 2007, and Nature’s Pics Online, 2007; images extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons).

The last two of Bastion’s skins are based on steampunk designs. Therefore, they needed a more city-dwelling bird to accompany him. Ganymede thus appears as a rock pigeon, Columba livia Gmelin, 1789 (family Columbidae), the common pigeon we have in large cities. The Gearbot skin has a common rock pigeon (Fig. 7A), while the Steambot skin is accompanied by an albinistic pigeon (Fig. 7B). We judge it is an albinistic (instead of a leucistic; see Box 1 below) bird, because the beak also does not have the usual black pigmentation (it is pinkish yellow). We could not check if the same is true for Ganymede’s legs, though, as we have yet to unlock this very expensive skin in the game.


Figure 7. Bastion’s skins, accompanied by a close-up of Ganymede and a photo of the actual bird species in which he was based. Bastion’s skins are screenshots from the game; the images were extracted from Overwatch Wiki. A. Bastion’s Gearbot skin. Rock pigeon, Columba livia (photo by Diego Delso, 2012; image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons). B. Bastion’s Steambot skin. Albinistic rock pigeon, Columba livia (photo by Maria Corcacas; image extracted from Project FeederWatch, a partner organization of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, used with permission).

Unsurprisingly, all the birds above are American (Blizzard’s headquarters is in California). As explained above, the depictions are not completely true-to-life, but simplified in some instances. This is to be expected, we guess, since the game’s developers would not need focusing too much on a scientifically accurate depiction of a bird. They would rather be more worried about making all the shooting fun. Nevertheless, it seems the team at Blizzard clearly put a lot of effort in making Ganymede, as not only his appearance but also his movements in the game are all very realistic (the model for Ganymede in the animated short The Last Bastion was done based on the pet parrot of a Blizzard employee). The two pigeon “skins” for Ganymede even change his body shape to make him look like a pigeon.

Box 1. Albinism and leucism

Both albinism and leucism are genetic variations, meaning they are conditions defined by the genes the animal inherits from its parents. Albino animals show a complete (or partial) absence of the pigment called melanin in their skin, hair, feathers, scales, cuticles and irises. Melanin is responsible for brown and black colors. Thus, albinos are very light-skinned, with white hairs and red eyes (the lack of pigment in the eyes means that the light is reflected by the blood vessels). This failure to produce melanin is usually caused by the absence or malformation of an enzyme involved in its production. Common albino animals include white lab rats and mice and rabbits. People with albinism are also rather common.

In leucism, however, there is only partial loss of pigmentation. This means paler hairs (or feathers, etc.), often “creamy” in color, but with no changes to the eyes. It is also different from albinism in another regard: leucism is a reduction in several types of pigment, not only melanin. Leucistic peacocks are very commonly bred in captivity and leucistic lions are a fan-favorite in zoos.

On the opposite side of albinism, there is a condition called melanism. The over-deposition of the black pigment melanin in hairs (or feathers, etc.) results in very dark animals, like the black jaguar.


Nevertheless, despite all the care in making Ganymede, there are some major inconsistencies (besides the whole “American-bird-in-German-forest” issue discussed above). Until Gamescom (in August 2016, when the animated short The Last Bastion was premiered), we supposed that Ganymede was a male. This was based on: (1) the name, which is a male one (originally from Greek mythology); (2) it is crested and colorful, which is common of male birds, while females often have a plainer look; and (3) it sings a lot, which is also a typical male activity in birds (usually used for defending territory or courtship).However, in the aforementioned animated short, Ganymede is building a nest, which is typical female behavior. It is very rare for male birds to do the nest building (this is only seen, for instance, in species of weavers and megapodes). Moreover, Bastion’s Overgrown skin, which relates to the short, has a nest with eggs place on the robot’s shoulder (Fig. 8). Needless to say, only females can lay eggs. Moreover, the incubation and hatching is usually also done by females; male birds only rarely incubate eggs. Of course, the eggs from the Overgrown skin are way too large (Fig. 8) to belong to Ganymede anyway.


Figure 8. Bastion’s Overgrown skin (screenshot from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.

Ganymede’s sex is never directly alluded to in the game or official material, although sometimes we could find the pronouns “he” and “his” referring to it on Blizzard’s websites. Curiously, the same is true for Bastion, who is almost always referred to by the pronoun “it”, but sometimes by “he”.


The player can also customize Bastion’s victory pose, which is shown after the match if he/she was part of the winning team. One of Bastion’s poses is called Birdwatching, because, well, he is watching his bird (Fig. 9).

It might sound surprising to some that birdwatching is not only an actual pastime but a very popular one at that. But what exactly is it?


Figure 9. Bastion’s Birdwatching victory pose (screenshot from the game). Image extracted from Overwatch Wiki.

Birdwatching, also called birding, is basically an activity of wildlife observation, where you go out to observe, of course, birds. You can do this, of course, with the naked eye, but it is better done with a good pair of binoculars (or sometimes a telescope). It’s a hobby that actually attracts a huge lot of people (Fig. 10), especially when a rare bird is involved. There are, of course, guides for beginners explaining everything about how to start birding, like Birding for Beginners: A Comprehensive Introduction to the Art of Birdwatching (by S. Buff, 2010), and websites like All About Birds (by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology).


Figure 10. Birdwatchers (often called simply “birders”) at Caerlaverock, UK, watching a rare (in Europe) White-tailed Lapwing, Vanellus leucurus (Lichtenstein, 1823). Photo by MPF (2007); Image extracted and modified from Wikimedia Commons.

After you’ve started your birding campaigns, you will want to know the names of the birds you’re seeing. To identify the bird species, you can use one of the several field guides and handbooks in existence. These books have drawings and/or photos of the birds, with guidelines to identify them. These guides are usually restricted to a single country (or sometimes just part of it, if the country is too large, like Brazil or the USA) or continent (like Europe). It’s very easy to find one at your bookstore or online store, since they are often called “Birds of Somewhere” (Fig. 11). Of course, there are now also websites that act as these guides, such as the RSPB’s Bird Identifier (see References below).


Figure 11. Examples of “bird books”, with the covers of Birds of Australia (by K. Simpson & N. Day, 2010, 8th ed.), Birds of Venezuela (by S.L. Hilty, 2003, 2nd ed.) and Collins Bird Guide (by L. Svensson et al., 2010, 2nd ed.).

Moreover, birdwatching actually involves a lot of hearing, because you will most often hear the bird before seeing it (if you see it at all). Thus, it is also good to know what each species’ vocalization sounds likes. There are several websites to identify birds’ calls, such as the Smithsonian’s Guide (see References below). Of course, both for image and song identification, there are now lots of apps, such as eBird Mobile, BirdsEye, Collins Field Guide and Bird Song Id, among several others. Unfortunately, these websites and apps are still largely restricted to the USA and Europe, while the greatest (and some would say most splendorous) bird diversity is found in Australasia and tropical America.

Birdwatching is all about enjoying nature and having fun, but birders worldwide abide by a “code of conduct” of sorts (see, for example, the code of the American Birding Association). Nowadays, our more ecological-prone society is concerned about the impact that our activities have on the animals and their environment. Thus, birdwatching etiquette usually includes promoting the welfare of birds and their habitats, limiting the birders’ impact (photographing, using playback devices, keeping your distance from nests etc.) and thus mitigating the stress caused to the animals. Basically, have fun, but let the birds live their life – that’s what Bastion does anyway.


American Birding Association. (2016) ABA Code of Ethics. Principles of Birding Ethics. Available from: (Date of access: 23/Jul/2016).

BirdLife International. (2012) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available from: http:// (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The. (2016a) All About Birds. Available from: https://www.allabout (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The. (2016b) Project FeederWatch. Available from: http://feeder (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Gamepedia. (2016) Overwatch. Available from: (Date of access: 30/Aug/2016).

Glenn Bartley Nature Photography. (2016) Bird Photography from Canada and around the World. Available from: (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

McCormac, J. (2016) Ohio Birds and Biodiversity. Available from: http://jimmccormac.blogspot. nl/ (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Mcgraw, K.J.; Hill, G.E.; Parker, R.S. (2003) Carotenoid pigments in a mutant cardinal:  implications for the genetic and enzymatic control mechanisms of carotenoid metabolism in birds. The Condor 105: 587–592.

Overwatch. (2016) Bastion Reference Kit. Available from: (Date of access: 30/Jun/2016).

Overwatch Wiki. (2016) Overwatch Wiki. Available from: ia/reference/bastion_reference.pdf (Date of access: 26/Jun/2016).

RSBP. (2016) Bird Identifier. Available from: (Date of access: 23/Jul/2016).

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. (2016) Guide to North American Bird Songs and Sounds. Available from: birds/education/ (Date of access: 23/Jul/2016).


We are very grateful to Anne Marie Johnson (Project FeederWatch) and Glenn Bartley for granting us permission to use their photos here.


Barbara Tomotani is a birdwatcher bird-scientist and was a marked presence at Blizzard’s store booth during Gamescom, hoping to find a Ganymede plush.

Rodrigo Salvador is a biologist, but now is found mostly escorting payloads as either D.Va or Lúcio. He has his fair share of Plays of the Game as Bastion, though.

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The birds of James Bond

Rodrigo B. Salvador1 & Barbara M. Tomotani2

1 Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Stuttgart; Stuttgart, Germany. Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen; Tübingen, Germany. Email: salvador.rodrigo.b (at) gmail (dot) com

2 Netherlands Institute of Ecology; Wageningen, The Netherlands. Rijksuniversiteit Groningen; Groningen, The Netherlands. Email: (at) gmail (dot) com

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“The name is Bond, James Bond.”

This particular British Secret Service agent is known worldwide through numerous books, comics, videogames and, of course, films. James Bond was created by Ian Fleming and the series now outlives its creator, continuing to grow on a somewhat constant rate. Fleming’s superspy character was based on many people he met during the time he spent serving in the British Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. In his own words, James Bond “was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war”.

But what few know is where the name comes from. Actually, it was not invented by Fleming for the character; instead, it was borrowed from a real person. So who was the original James Bond and how Fleming came to know him and to borrow his name?


James Bond was born in Philadelphia on 4 January 1900. After his mother’s death during his teens, in 1914, he moved with his father to England, going to Cambridge University and receiving his degree in 1922. Back in Philadelphia, after less than three years working for a banking firm, his love of natural history led him to join an expedition of the ANSP (Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia) to the lower Amazon River in Brazil. His father, Francis E. Bond, who led an ANSP expedition (when James was 11) to the Orinoco Delta, perhaps influenced James’ decision, as well as his interest in the natural sciences.

James Bond, in 1974. Photo taken at the ANSP by Jerry Freilich. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

After the expedition to the Amazon, James Bond became a true ornithologist (see Box 1 for a glossary) and curator of the ANSP and started to publish many scientific papers on the South American birds. Nevertheless, he soon decided that the focus of his studies would be the Caribbean birds and this became his life’s work. He spent the next decades travelling through the Caribbean islands and studying their avifauna. The main result of his work in the region was the book “Birds of the West Indies” (1936), containing a scientific account (with descriptions, habits, geographic distribution etc.) of all the known species from the islands. The book was renamed “Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies” on its second edition (1947), but reverted to the original name on the third edition (1961). Also, from the third edition onwards, the book featured color plates of the birds (by Don R. Eckelberry) and more simplified descriptions. This made the book more similar to modern field guides, making it a must for scientists and birdwatchers alike. After the final edition (1985), Bond kept the book updated via a series of 27 supplements. He finished revising a sixth edition shortly before his death (on 14 February 1989, after a years-long fight with cancer).


Cover of the first edition of “Birds of the West Indies”, featuring the Jamaican tody (Todus todus).

From all the islands that James Bond visited, perhaps the one that most fascinated him was Jamaica, where he realized that the native avifauna was derived from North America, and not from South America as was previously supposed. This kind of study is part of the discipline known as Biogeography and led Bond, in 1971, to establish a biogeographic boundary between the Lesser Antilles and Tobago. This line separates two zones, the West Indies and South America, each with its own type of avifauna. This later led David Lack to propose, in 1973, the name “Bond’s Line” for this boundary.

Map of the Caribbean Islands, showing the West Indies avifaunal region, encompassed by Bond’s Line. (Source: Bond, 1993.)

Besides the books, Bond published more than 100 scientific papers and was awarded many medals and honors throughout his career. He is known today as the father or Caribbean ornithology. What he did not expected though, was the other Bond, which appeared in Jamaica of all places, and caused him a certain deal of consternation.


It was only in 1960–1961 that Bond discovered his fictional namesake from Ian Fleming’s novels, after several novels had already been published (the first one, “Cassino Royale”, dates from 1953). This led his wife Mary to write the book “How 007 Got His Name” (published in 1966). In this book, she tells how she jokingly wrote a letter to Fleming saying that he had “brazenly taken the name of a real human being for your rascal!”

Fleming was a British novelist and spent a couple of months every year in his estate (named Goldeneye) on Oracabessa Bay, on the northern coast of Jamaica. He was interested in the Jamaican wildlife and had a growing collection of book on shells, birds, fish and flora. Also, as any keen birdwatcher on the Caribbean, Fleming used the “Field Guide of Birds of the West Indies” (he had the 2nd edition, from 1947) and was thus very familiar with the name James Bond. On his reply to Mary’s letter, he explained that he “was determined that my secret agent should be as anonymous a personality as possible. (…) At this time one of my bibles was, and still is, Birds of the West Indies by James Bond, and it struck me that this name, brief, unromantic and yet very masculine, was just what I needed and so James Bond II was born.” On a later interview, Fleming explained further his choice of name: “I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, ‘James Bond’ was much better than something more interesting, like ‘Peregrine Carruthers’. Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure – an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.”

The Goldeneye estate, as of 2011. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

On that letter to Mary, Fleming added that in return for using the name he could offer “your James Bond unlimited use of the name Ian Fleming for any purpose he may think fit. Perhaps one day he will discover some particularly horrible species of bird which he would like to christen in an insulting fashion.” This never happened though. Finally, Fleming also invited the Bonds to visit him in Jamaica. This happened in 1964, when the Bonds were there researching and paid a surprise visit to Fleming. This was shortly before the novelist’s death six months later, and luckily, this one-time meeting was captured in video for a future documentary. At first, Fleming was suspicious of Bond’s identity and asked him to identify some birds. Bond, of course, passed the test with flying colors and Fleming had the happiest day of the rest of his life.


Jamaica, despite being a rather small country, has a very diverse avifauna. There are circa 320 bird species living in Jamaica, including migrants. From these, 28 are endemic species, 12 are endangered and 14 are introduced. Some of these species have fascinated James Bond, Ian Fleming and countless other tourists and birdwatchers. Moreover, since Ian Fleming was such a keen birdwatcher, birds sometimes featured in his stories (and later in the films), and a collection of bird trivia can be found in Box 2 further below.

We will now briefly introduce some of the more interesting Jamaican birds and explore a little bit of their natural history and even folklore.

Red-Billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus)

The red-billed streamertail, also known as doctor bird or scissortail hummingbird, appears in Fleming’s short story “For Your Eyes Only” (1960). The first lines of the story are: “The most beautiful bird in Jamaica, and some say the most beautiful bird in the world, is the streamer-tail or doctor humming-bird.” It is very hard to crown a “most beautiful” bird, but the red-billed streamertail is indeed remarkable. The feathers on the male’s tail (the “streamers”) are longer than their actual body and make a humming sound during flight. James Bond (the ornithologist) seems to agree; well, partially, at least: his book says that the “adult male is the most spectacular West Indian hummingbird”.

This species is the most abundant and widespread bird in Jamaica and was actually selected as the country’s national bird. Frederic G. Cassidy (1962–2000), who studied the evolution of the English language in Jamaica, says that the name doctor bird comes from the way the animals spear the flowers with their beaks to feed. Still, the term “doctor” also carries a superstitious overtone (as in “witch-doctor”) and Cassidy notes that natives referred to these hummingbirds as “god birds”.

Male (top) and female (bottom) of the Red-Billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus). (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Male (top) and female (bottom) of the Red-Billed Streamertail (Trochilus polytmus). (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)


Jamaican Tody (Todus todus)

The todies belong to the order Coraciiformes, a group that also includes kingfishers, rollers and bee-eaters. The Jamaican tody was at first believed to be a species of hummingbird. Later, it received the name of robin, due to its small size and round appearance. This early folk name still survives in Jamaica as robin red-breas’, an allusion to the bird’s red colored patch below the beak and a copy of the English name of another bird. Robin redbreast is the old name of the European robin (Erithacus rubecula), a totally unrelated species.

The Jamaican tody is a tiny bird that feeds on insects and fruits, nesting in excavated burrows. James Bond was especially interested in the nesting behavior of birds and studied this topic at length. He chose the Jamaican tody as the cover of the first edition of “Birds of the West Indies” (1936). It has a very small geographic distribution and its population seems to be steadily decreasing in the last decade.

The Jamaican Tody, Todus todus. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Jamaican Poorwill (Siphonorhis americana)

Also known as Jamaican pauraque, this nocturnal bird is a species of nightjar, of the family Caprimulgidae. The family name comes from the Latin caprimulgus (goatsucker) and reflects the absurd folk “lore” that these birds sucked milk from goats.

Very little is known about the Jamaican poorwill – it had been extinct long before Bond’s studies, since 1859. It was driven to extinction by introduced rats and mongooses, alongside the usual human-caused habitat destruction. Since the birds nest on the ground, their eggs are easy prey for these introduced mammals. Nevertheless, there are some recent (1998) records of caprimulgids from the regions of the Milk River and the Hellshire Hills in the country, but they remain unconfirmed. Thus, a very small population of poorwills might still exist in these remote regions. Curiously, Bond had also previously alluded to the possibility of a surviving population of these birds on the semi-arid Hellshire Hills.

The Jamaican poorwill, Siphonorhis americana. (Source: Rothschild, 1907.)

Jamaican Blackbird (Nesopsar nigerrimus)

The Jamaican blackbird (family Icteridae) is the only species in its genus and all of its names are rather misleading. Firstly, it is not an actual blackbird (Turdus merula, family Turdidae), which is a species of thrush. Nevertheless, the family Icteridae is popularly known as “New World blackbirds”, so we can let this one slip. As for the scientific name, the genus name comes from the Greek neso (island) and psar (starling) and, as one might guess, this bird is completely unrelated to true starlings (family Sturnidae). Finally, the specific epithet (see Salvador, 2014, for a crash course in species’ scientific names) means simply “very black”, which might not be so descriptive of a “blackbird” after all.

The Jamaican blackbird, Nesopsar nigerrimus. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Nevertheless, a local Jamaican popular name for this bird is “wild-pine sergeant” and is more accurate than the other names. These birds feed on insects they find in tree bark or bromeliads (locally known as “wild-pines”) and are adapted to climbing trees, similar to woodpeckers. They inhabit the montane forests of Jamaica and are arranged in pairs of birds, each pair occupying a vast territory. The severe deforestation caused by mining, forestry, charcoal production and agriculture has led to an extreme habitat loss incompatible with the blackbirds’ large territories. The species is thus considered endangered, but only some very shy efforts have been made towards its preservation.

Sad Flycatcher (Myiarchus barbirostris)

The sad flycatcher (together with the lesser Antillean pewee, Contopus latirostris) is commonly called little Tom-fool by the Jamaican people, for its habit of refusing to fly away when threatened. This flycatcher species inhabits the forests of Jamaica and, as their name imply, feed on insects. In fact, the genus name comes from the Greek muia (fly) and archos (ruler), while the specific epithet refers to the presence of rictal bristles. These bristles are modified feathers (that look like mammals’ whiskers) projecting from the beak; they not only provide tactile feedback (as whiskers do), but also supposedly protect the birds’ eyes as they consumes their wriggly insect prey.

The sad flycatcher, Myiarchus barbirostris. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

To avoid confusion, we must note here that the sad flycatcher is part of the group known as “New World flycatchers” or “tyrant flycatchers” (the family Tyrannidae). The “Old World flycatchers” belong to another family, Muscicapidae, which is only distantly related to the Tyrannidae.

Jamaican Crow (Corvus jamaicensis)

This bird is locally known as “jabbering crow” of “gabbling crow”, for it can produce a variety of jabbering sounds (besides the common “caw” of crows). Their incessant jabbering may also sound like indistinct human languages and, to the British, rather like Welsh people, which led to the birds being nicknamed “Welshmen” in a typical bout of Brit humor.

The Jamaican crows live mainly in the country’s uplands, but may come down to the lowlands during the dry season. They feed mainly on fruit and invertebrates, but may occasionally eat other birds’ eggs and nestlings.

The Jamaican crow, Corvus jamaicensis. (Source: Internet Bird Collection, IBC155934. Courtesy of Ken Simonite.)



Bond’s work with the Caribbean avifauna set the basis for ornithology in the region and most of his insights have been continuously proved accurate. As such, his influence in science shall remain relevant for a long time to come. Well, at least until humans have extinguished all the bird species in the region – unfortunately, birds live only once and Jamaica has already lost three of its endemic species. Meanwhile, the other Bond also remain a relevant figure in popular culture and imagination, with his over-the-top stories, exotic locations, strange villains, Bond girls, fancy suits, weaponized cars and a number of crazy gadgets. James Bond has thus the (somewhat dubious) honor of having his name twice immortalized in History, as a brilliant ornithologist and as a womanizing superspy. (We believe the latter is better remembered than the former though.)

But for those of you thinking that a birder’s life is much duller than a spy’s life, some words from the naturalist and writer Alexander F. Skutch (1904–2004) might change your mind or at the very least make you revisit your beliefs: “our quest of them [birds] takes us to the fairest places; to find them and uncover some of their well-guarded secrets we exert ourselves greatly and live intensely.”


Avibase. (2015) Bird Checklists of the World. Jamaica. Available from:  (Date of access: 02/Apr/2015).

Bond, J. (1993) A Field Guide to the Birds of the West Indies. Fifth edition (Peterson Field Guides). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.

Bond, M.F.W.P. (1966) How 007 Got His Name. Collins, London.

Cassidy, F.G. (2006) Jamaica Talk: Three Hundred Years of the English Language in Jamaica. University of the West Indies Press, Kingston.

Clements, J.F.; Schulenberg, T.S.; Iliff, M.J.; Roberson, D.; Fredericks, T.A.; Sullivan, B.L.; Wood, C.L. (2014) The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world. Version 6.9. Available from: (Date of access: 02/Apr/2015).

Chancellor, H. (2005) James Bond: The Man and His World. John Murray, London.

Cruz, A. (1978) Adaptive evolution in the Jamaican Blackbird Nesopsar nigerrimus. Ornis Scandinavia 9(2): 130–137.

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). (2014) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Available from: (Date of access: 03/Apr/2015).

Lederer, R. & Burr, C. (2014) Latin for Bird Lovers. Timber Press, New York.

MI6-HQ. (2015) MI6 – The Home of James Bond 007. Available from: (Date of access: 02/Apr/2015).

Parker, M. (2015) Goldeneye. Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica. Pegasus Publications, Winnipeg.

Parkes, K. (1989) In Memoriam: James Bond. The Auk 106(4): 718–720.

Rothschild, W. (1907) Extinct Birds. An attempt to unite in one volume a short account of those birds which have become extinct in historical times – that is, within the last six or seven hundred years. To which are added a few which still exist, but are on the verge of extinction. Hutchinson & Co., London.

Salvador, R.B. (2014) Geeky nature. Journal of Geek Studies 1(1-2): 41–45.

Skutch, A.F. (1977) A Bird Watcher’s Adventures in Tropical America. University of Texas Press, Austin.

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Robins, robins, robins

Barbara M. Tomotani

Netherlands Institute of Ecology; Wageningen, The Netherlands.

Rijksuniversiteit Groningen; Groningen, The Netherlands.

Email: (at) gmail (dot) com

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Since Pokémon is a recurrent topic on this journal, I would like to call your attention to this little fellow: the fletchling.

Fletchling (yayakoma, in Japanese), as it appears in official Pokémon artwork.

Fletchling (yayakoma, in Japanese), as it appears in official Pokémon artwork.

Fletchling is a tiny normal/flying-type robin pokémon with an orange head and grey body. Both Pokédex and Bulbapedia tell us that they sing beautifully, send signs using chirps and tail movements and are also merciless to intruders in their territory. It evolves to a fire/flying peregrine falcon (how a robin becomes a falcon is a topic for further discussion) that is a very common sight in competitions.

Back to fletchling. Even though I like all sorts of birds (I am an ornithologist after all), we always have our favorites; mine is the robin. And so, the tiny robin fletchling became my all-time-favorite pokémon. Now let us take a look at the robin I find in my garden.

European robin (Erithacus rubecula). Could you really be a fletchling?

Well, they look somewhat similar, but the color differs. Could my garden robin and fletchling be the same thing then? Are there any other robins outta there?

Teen Titans Go! Image taken from:

No no, I meant bird robins.

American Robin (Turdus migratorius). Image taken from: Wikimedia Commons.
Japanese robin (Erithacus akahige). Image taken from: Wikimedia Commons.

So it is finally clear that fletchling was based on the Japanese robin and not on the European one from my garden (even though the entire Pokémon XY games supposedly been based on France – good job, Game Freak Inc.).

Now let us take a closer look at the bird robins (please refer to the figures above). We can see that the Japanese and European robins are very similar between themselves, especially when you compare them to the American and Australian robins (see figure below). This is expected, since the former share the same genus (Erithacus), meaning that they are more closely related. That is why they are so similar in appearance despite the difference in color. There is yet another Erithacus robin in Japan which has even more distinct plumage color (the Ryukyu robin, see figure below), but that is still very similar in shape to the European and Japanese robins.

Ryukyu robin (Erithacus komadori). Image taken from: Wikimedia Commons.

American robins, on the other hand, are much more different. They belong to another genus (Turdus), which also includes blackbirds, song thrushes and fieldfares. As such, they are only distantly related to the species belonging to Erithacus. Actually, Turdus might even belong to a completely different family – this is a hotly debated topic in ornithological circles, but I will not dwell on it.

Australian robins (Petroica rosea) are part yet another very distinct group. Image taken from: Wikimedia Commons.

So why we call all these different birds “robins”?

Robin is a popular English name to refer to passerines with red breast. The first one to be named as such was the European robin and the name was later on “exported” by colonizers and travelers for the birds in other continents. In other languages, the red breast feature of the European robin is always the focus: “Rotkehlchen” (German), “pisco-de-peito-ruivo” (Portuguese), “rouge-gorge familier” (French), “petirrojo” (Spanish), “pettirosso” (Italian) etc. Folklore says the red breast was earned by the brave small European robin as a token for its heroic acts (Greenoak, 1997).

European/Japanese and American/ Australian robins all share the red breast feature, being, thus, all called “robins”. However, as we saw, one pair is not closely related to the other – they do not share the same genus. This is because their popular name is not based on any evidence of how closely related they are. Popular names are just useful tools for people’s everyday life. Scientific names, however, are more than that. As we saw, color is not the only characteristic that make a bird a Turdus or an Erithacus – The other Japanese robin (the Ryukyu robin) does not even have an orange breast; what makes it an Erithacus is its body shape, skeleton, anatomy etc. Giving a name is not an easy matter in science (this branch of Biology is called Taxonomy, by the way). The act of classifying and naming a species is based on studies that analyze the morphology and even the DNA of living beings to decide who is more related to whom (and therefore belong to the same genus or family). Therefore, scientific names also contains information on the relationship between species and will never confuse someone as popular names like “robin” do.


Bulbapedia. Fletchling (Pokémon). Available from: (Date of access: 27/aug/2014).

Greenoak, F. (1997) British Birds: their Folklore, Names and Literature. Christopher Helm, London.

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