spotting wildlife on a family bike tour

Counting Cows: Our Favorite Family Bike Touring Game

To pass the time while we were riding my wife taught the rest of us a car game she learned growing up in Vermont. The game involves counting animals you see along the road. The game itself is now near extinction as a car game with the amount of driving that now happens on interstates and in cities.

She knew the game as “Bury your Pooches” or just “Pooches”.

In her childhood version,

you get a point for every domestic animal that you spot first, except for cows and birds. If you are first one to spot a cemetery, you can say “Bury your pooches!” and the other players lose all their points (but you keep yours). The person with the most points upon arrival at the destination wins.

When I got home from the trip I researched the game to see if someone else had already published the rules to the game. What I found was a kind of folk history where the game had existed with a number of names and rules that changed over time. We were about the change the rules, too.

Variations of the game are also known as Cows and Cemeteries,
Cow Poker and Counting Cows.

In all these variations, you count cows instead of excluding them. All the game variations share the common element of resetting scores when a cemetery is passed. Some limit your possible animals to only those on “your side of the car”.

Our kids loved this game. Once the game was introduced, a running game was almost always happening. As we traded kids between bikes, we would reset the scores. That is, we always limited the game to the people riding the same bike, so we would be able to spot things at the same time.

What I loved most was riding along quietly only have to the child with me yell out “pooch!”. I got these frequent reminders that my kids weren’t passively riding, but activity scanning and engaged with their environment.

Other times, the “pooch” we spotted the game was “chase” and we were the prey. Our kids didn’t always appreciate the distinction.

“Pooch! Pooch! Pooch! I counted three pooches chasing us, how many did you get, dad?”

“Too. Busy. Pedaling.” I would huff out as I tried to get our heavy bike out of range.

This naturally handicapped the game in favor of the passengers.

After trying out the traditional rules, we decided to change the rules to allow counting wildlife as well. Our rule for wildlife was that you not only had to spot it but also name it correctly.

Rules for Counting Cows Bike Trip Game

Here are the rules for our “Counting Cows” variation that we settled on.

  1. Each rider/passenger or captain/stoker team keeps their own score. Playing across multiple bikes could work if you ride close together so people have an similar chance of spotting something first.
  2. Whoever spots a domestic or wild animal first, except cows, yells “Pooch!” and gets a point if they can correctly identify the animal. Decide amongst yourselves how specific to be. In our family, you couldn’t just say “butterfly”, you had to say “cabbage white butterfly” or “yellow sulphur butterfly”. Turtles had to identified as “box turtle” or “painted turtle”. You have to tell a dragonfly from a damselfly and so on.
  3. If you are first one to spot a cemetery, you can say “Bury your pooches!” and the other players lose all their points (but you keep yours).
  4. The person with the most points upon arrival at the destination wins.

While “Pooches” may be in steep decline as a car game, it makes a great family bike trip game. Many of our bike routes featured animals either wild our domestic and sometimes cemeteries appeared in the strangest places to keep things interesting. If you follow our route, there’s one right next to one of the campground destinations. Watch out!

To enhance the game, considering bringing a companion wildlife or bird identification app or book that you could check during our breaks.

Playing Counting Cows made us all more eager to become better at identifying particular species of birds so we could get points for them!

Do you have a favorite game to play on family bike rides or tours? Let us know in the comments below!

This tips and are others are planned to be published in the upcoming book Let’s Go Family Bike Camping.