Herring Gull through Red Dead Redemption 2's in-game binoculars. Image: Courtesy of Rockstar Games

Culture

Birding Like It’s 1899: Inside a Blockbuster American West Video Game

In "Red Dead Redemption 2," a birder finds joy and despair in a realistic portrayal of wildlife in the pre-conservation era.

The first time I see ravens, I flush them out of an alpine meadow carpeted with wildflowers. I pause to watch the flock fly off towards the distant, snow-capped peaks, trailed by their echoing croaks, when a man riding by on horseback bumps into me. Irritated, I shoot the man dead, and take his hat. So it goes in "Red Dead Redemption 2."

Available since October, "Red Dead Redemption 2" (RDR2) is a video game set in an imagined version of the American West in the year 1899. It’s a massive release, both one of the highest-selling video games of 2018 and one that sits at or near the top of many of the internet’s Best Of 2018 video game lists. It’s also unique in that the natural world—or, at least, a romanticized and heightened version of it—is one of the main characters.

You play as outlaw Arthur Morgan and can choose to spend your time marauding across the landscape, holding up wagons and evading lawmen—or you can play a gentler way, as a birder. Of sorts. Birding as a hobby was just getting underway in the late 1800s, and much of the population, especially those living off the land as Arthur Morgan does, still primarily viewed birds as resources for food, materials, and hunting sport. The nation's landmark law protecting migratory birds was still two decades away.  

The gigantic RDR2 playable map is brimming with life. Hawks perch on exposed branches and ducks flush from riverbanks. Wolves chase deer through the woods, and vultures descend to feed on the carcasses. There are alligators, turtles, snakes, frogs, toads, bats, and dozens of species of fish. In all there are about 200 distinct, interactive species of animals in RDR2, and more than 40 different plant species. 

I spent most of my time finding birds, and was impressed with the breadth and relative accuracy of the species represented. Birds change with habitat: Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets feed in the bayous of Saint Denis. Laughing Gulls and Red-footed Boobies roost along the coast, while eagles and condors soar over mountain peaks. Each of these are crafted with accurate field marks and habits. There are dozens of species I couldn’t even find, including Carolina Parakeets, Ferruginous Hawks, and Pileated Woodpeckers. Like real life birding, you’re never guaranteed to see anything.

The sound design, too, is impressive. The landscape is alive with birdsong, including many species not actually in the game, like Northern Flicker and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I was riding through a wooded area one time as dusk turned to night, and whip-poor-wills began singing out all around me.

Arthur Morgan watching ravens flying overhead. Image: Courtesy of Rockstar Games

Those kinds of natural surprises are what I love most about the game, and they happen frequently. One time I had shot a Mallard and left its body on the lakeshore after taking its feathers and meat. I was nearby about 10 minutes later and noticed a Red Fox emerging from the grass and walking down towards the duck carcass, still on the shore. A pair of Turkey Vultures descended and the trio fed on the duck. I watched from afar through my binoculars (in-game binoculars!) and felt incredibly lucky to have caught such a spontaneous and real-feeling episode.

There are some minor errors I noticed, however, that as a birder and critic of these things I feel obligated to point out. In addition to the Snowy Egret, there are quite a few Little Egrets in Saint Denis, which would have been a truly rare North America sighting. What’s called a California Quail is actually a Northern Bobwhite. Tanagers are, for some reason, referred to as Scarlet Tanager Songbird and Western Tanager Songbird. But that’s all. Overall, RDR2 is absolutely the best and boldest representation of American birdlife in any video game. It’s not even close.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a game for birders. This game exists in a time where humans mainly viewed birds—and all of the natural world—as ripe for exploitation rather than appreciation. All animals in the game can be hunted, and either eaten or crafted into clothing or materials. Bird flight feathers are used to craft arrows that fly straighter. Special feathers, like those from hawks and eagles, are used to make clothing. All of these parts can be traded or sold.

Of course, unregulated hunting was a major, very real threat to birds at the time. The demand for egret plumes for fancy hats was driving several species toward extinction. (Snowy Egret plumes can be sold in-game for $2.50 apiece.) Habitat loss and overhunting contributed to the extinction of the Carolina Parakeet soon after the game’s timeframe, in the early 20th century. (Carolina Parakeet flight feathers can be used to make far-flying arrows in the game.) The type of wanton destruction encouraged in Red Dead Redemption 2 is what led the National Audubon Society to lobby for, and Congress to pass, the real Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, and other environmental legislation in the following decades. But in the game, the player must kill to progress.

Thankfully, the game does not shy away from the realities of these interactions. An imprecise shot will wound an animal, leaving it to yelp and squirm before you finish your job. In order to receive meat or parts you need to skin or pluck the animal, a process that though superficial is clearly and gruesomely animated. Nor does RDR2 spare you the experience of the human impact on the land.

In fact, the disastrous intersection between humans and the environment is the game’s major theme. A sense of foreboding follows me around the lush world, knowledge that humans were at work destroying it all. Much of that destruction is represented in-game, from the factory smokestacks of Saint Denis to the Owanjila Dam, but I could also feel it extended into real life. I couldn’t help but envision the dirt paths becoming busy highways, and each green meadow converted into a housing development. RDR2 presents an idealized version of the natural world, but the loss feels very real.

Mountain vista. Image: Courtesy of Rockstar Games

The trouble is, as a birder, it’s not a lesson I needed to learn. I know full well about the continued decline of bird populations, habitat loss, and environmental degradation. That the game could elicit such deep feelings of sadness and regret is to its credit, but I was often left feeling hopeless and wanting to get outside to enjoy real nature while I still could. My mom always used to tell me to stop playing video games and go outside, but this is the first game that made me want to. 

 

FIELD LIST: BIRDS OF "RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2"

Each of these birds is a distinct species in the game. Names are as presented in-game, followed by their most likely locations. Does not count heard-only birds. Does not include domestic chickens. (Information derived directly from game, as well as from Ranked Boost.)

LOONS

___ Loon, Common; West Elizabeth, Ambarino, and New Hanover

___ Loon, Yellow-billed; West Elizabeth and Ambarino

___ Loon, Pacific; West Elizabeth, Ambarino, and New Hanover

PELICANS

___ Pelican, American White; West Elizabeth, New Hanover, and Lemoyne

___ Pelican, Brown; West Elizabeth, New Hanover, and Lemoyne

BOOBIES

___ Booby, Red-footed; Guarma

CORMORANTS

___ Cormorant, Double-crested; Lemoyne, New Hanover, and West Elizabeth

___ Cormorant, Neotropic; New Hanover, Lemoyne, and West Elizabeth

EGRETS / HERONS

___ Egret, Little; Bayou Nwa

___ Egret, Snowy; Lemoyne

___ Egret, Reddish; Bayou Nwa

___ Heron, Great Blue; Lemoyne

___ Heron, Tricolored; Lemoyne

___ Spoonbill, Roseate; Bayou Nwa

VULTURES

___ Vulture, Eastern Turkey; New Hanover and Lemoyne

___ Vulture, Western Turkey; New Austin and West Elizabeth

GEESE / DUCKS

___ Mallard;  West Elizabeth, New Hanover and Lemoyne

___ Duck, Pekin;  West Elizabeth, New Hanover and Lemoyne

___ Goose, Canada; New Hanover and Lemoyne

GROUSE / TURKEY / QUAIL

___ Prairie Chicken, Greater; Great Plains

___ Pheasant, Ring-necked; New Hanover and West Elizabeth

___ Pheasant, Chinese Ring-necked; New Hanover and West Elizabeth

___ Turkey, Eastern Wild; West Elizabeth, New Hanover, and Lemoyne

___ Turkey, Rio Grande; New Austin

___ Quail, California; New Austin

RAPTORS

___ Condor, California; New Austin

___ Hawk, Ferruginous; Widespread

___ Hawk, Red-tailed; New Austin, West Elizabeth, and New Hanover

___ Hawk, Rough-legged; Widespread

___ Eagle, Bald; Ambarino and West Elizabeth

___ Eagle, Golden; Ambarino and West Elizabeth

CRANES

___ Crane, Sandhill; Lemoyne and New Hanover

___ Crane, Whooping; Lemoyne and New Hanover

GULLS

___ Gull, Laughing; Lemoyne

___ Gull, Herring; Bluewater Marsh

___ Gull, Ring-billed; Saint Denis

PARROTS / PARAKEETS

___ Parakeet, Carolina; Lemoyne

___ Macaw, Scarlet; Guarma

___ Macaw, Great Green; Guarma

___ Macaw, Blue and Yellow; Guarma

OWLS

___ Owl, Great Horned; Widespread

___ Owl, Coastal Horned; Widespread

___ Owl, California Horned; New Austin

WOODPECKER

___ Woodpecker, Pileated; New Hanover

___ Woodpecker, Red-bellied; Roanoke Ridge

JAYS / CROWS

___ Jay, Blue; Widespread

___ Crow, American; Widespread

___ Raven, Western; Widespread

THRUSHES

___ Robin, American;  Widespread

WAXWINGS

___ Waxwing, Cedar; Widespread

TANAGERS

___ Songbird, Scarlet Tanager; Lemoyne, New Hanover, and West Elizabeth

___ Songbird, Western Tanager; New Austin, West Elizabeth, and New Hanover

NEW WORLD SPARROWS

___ Sparrow, Eurasian Tree; West Elizabeth, and New Hanover

___ Sparrow, American Tree; West Elizabeth, and New Hanover

___ Sparrow, Golden-crowned; West Elizabeth, and New Hanover

CARDINALS

___ Cardinal, Northern; Widespread

ORIOLES AND BLACKBIRDS

___ Oriole, Baltimore; Roanoke Ridge

___ Oriole, Hooded; West Elizabeth

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Bald Eagle. Photo: Don Berman/Audubon Photography Awards

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