We spotted the bird while taking a walk on a brisk and bracing January morning. As we came upon a flock of American Robins, the birds hurriedly took flight, ascending into the higher tree branches above. And that’s when we saw it—the tawny head, that striking black mask, and a yellow underbelly flashing as it, too, flew away.
“That’s a Cedar Waxwing!” we shouted in unison.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that one has a brown power,” noted my fiancé as we continued our walk.
Growing up in suburban North Carolina, I was accustomed to pointing out Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays in the backyard. The occasional American Goldfinch and Red-bellied Woodpecker also caught my eye. But the identification of the Cedar Waxwing was notable because the only reason I could identify this species was thanks to a board game.
At the beginning of 2020, my fiancé and I bought Wingspan, the hugely popular bird-centric tabletop game created by Elizabeth Hargrave. Since then, we’ve played at least twice a week, seeking solace in the game's vibrant illustrations and fun bird facts in an effort to escape the confines of the pandemic. The Cedar Waxwing is just one of almost 200 birds that appear on the game's playing cards, each equipped with its own unique powers and values. But playing Wingspan has been more than a fun distraction—it also inspired us to buy bird books and even install a window feeder. And as it turns out, the game has inspired others throughout the world to engage with birds, too, especially during pandemic.
Since debuting in 2019, Wingspan has sold more than 750,000 copies worldwide—450,000 of which sold between January 2020 and February 2021. Its immense popularity has prompted two expansion packs, an online Steam game, and a Nintendo Switch version. Stonemaier Games’s newest expansion for the game, Oceania, was released in December 2020 and already counts 110,000 copies sold. Recently, the makers announced that they would be releasing a Wingspan-inspired field guide, Celebrating Birds, in April.
A few months after I started playing Wingspan, I discovered a Facebook group dedicated solely to the game with more than 15,500 members from all over the world. Posts range from questions about rules to pictures of custom game pieces and sharing general enthusiasm for bird species. In the past year, though, the group has evolved from one focused on aspects of the game to one where individuals can share birds they’ve encountered, ask questions about identifying different species, and keep each other updated on their birding journeys amid the pandemic. I personally like to share videos of birds visiting my window feeder in the group.
The Facebook group is where Adam Steele Watkins got the idea for how to propose to his girlfriend at the time, Morgan Elizabeth Tripod. Watkins and Tripod live in Little Rock, Arkansas, and have been playing the game for two years. Watkins had seen enthusiasts in the group make their own versions of the game’s cards, so he asked one of them for their help.
The end result was a custom game card portraying a pair of Black-billed Magpies with “Adam and Morgan” printed at the top. At the bottom, where the special powers for each card are specified, reads, “When played: Lay 1 egg on each of your birds, or agree to marry the player to your right.”
To propose, Watkins arranged for some friends to meet him and Tripod at a local brewery to play Wingspan. He slipped copies of the card into the top half of the game’s deck and arranged them so she would pull one. Then the group waited. “I saw that it said our names at the top, and when I looked over, he was already kneeling,” Tripod says. “I was crying, and my heart was beating too fast. I immediately said yes.”
Now, a large version of the card is displayed prominently in the couple’s home. In addition to helping facilitate their love story, the couple says the game has increased their awareness and curiosity for birds.
“When we’ve gone to a couple of zoos, we find ourselves paying attention to birds the most,” Watkins says. Tripod says that she’s bought a field guide and tries to identify birds around their home.
The game has also helped the couple stay connected to friends and family in the past year. “It’s brought us closer as a couple and closer to the people that we play with,” she says. “It’s been a shining light in a dark year.”
Hanah Carter from Kentucky started playing the game online during the pandemic as a form of entertainment but says that her relationship with the game goes beyond just winning and losing. Carter, who volunteers as a naturalist at the Bernheim Arboretum, says she never thought of herself as someone who loved birds until she started playing Wingspan.
“I think the game allows you to build a relationship with a large amount of birds in a really unique way,” Carter says. “It’s more accessible than poring through field guides or taking a class. You get to be a part of their lives by playing the game.”
In the past few months, Carter has acquired birdwatching staples like binoculars and a couple of bird guides, and she now plans to go back to school for a biology degree focused on birds. She says that her love for birds started after she began playing the game.
“Wingspan has been a wonderful thing for the birding community,” Carter says. “I’ve noticed there’s a whole mass of people who had never thought about a bird who are now obsessed. It connects people with nature.”
Marcus Katscher was one of those individuals who hadn’t given much thought to birds before playing Wingspan. “I wasn’t really a birder or birdwatcher,” says Katscher, who lives in Germany. Like others, Katscher was drawn to the game because of its production value and gorgeous illustrations by artist Natalia Rojas. However, the more he played the game, the more he became interested in the birds themselves and what they were like beyond the confines of the gameplay.
“I was looking at all of the beautiful birds and I wanted to know how they sounded as well,” Katscher says. “I wanted to know immediately what the bird sounded like without having to look it up on Wikipedia or Google.”
Drawing from his background as an app developer, Katscher spent the next few months developing Wingsong, a mobile app in which players can scan cards from the game to play the corresponding bird’s song. Since releasing the free app last year, Wingsong has been downloaded more than 17,000 times on Android and iOS combined.
While he created the app for use with the game, Katscher says that he’s gotten feedback from teachers and parents alike who are using the app for educational purposes. It’s affected the way he interacts with birds now, too. “When I’m outside in the woods, I’m looking in the trees and trying to name them by their sounds,” he says.
And that’s the beauty of Wingspan, says Carter, who loves listening to the bird songs on the online version of the game. As someone who has struggled with anxiety, she says that her developing love of birds has helped her through the darkness and uncertainty of the last year.
“Anytime I see a bird, I realize, ‘I’m alive,’” Carter says. “‘And there’s that bird and he’s going to sing every day, and that’s how I should be too.’”