Birds are pervasive. While lions may be confined to one singular continent, and you won't find bears in every biome on the planet, birds are everywhere. Emus, penguins, birds of prey—they come in all shapes, sizes, and spectrums.
The same is true in the world of Pokemon. Every generation is teeming with Bird Types, and Flying has its own niche on the elemental spectrum. Throughout Pokemon's history, a pattern has emerged wherein each region has a Bird Pokemon you encounter early in your adventures, usually within the first couple of routes. These feathery companions are usually weak, quickly being outclassed by Pokemon you find deeper in your adventure.
However, these birds served a purpose: once you got access to the HM Fly, these same Pokemon that many people dumped into their boxes to rot often became the key to opening up the world and revisiting previous places in the blink of an eye. I was always a sentimental child, and couldn't bear to part with the Pokemon I first caught, which meant I always fought the Elite Four with one of these avian companions on my squad. The TCG captures the spirit of these birds by making them better at assisting than battling. Looking at each Generation's bird friends also shows us how the franchise continues to breathe new life into a familiar formula.
Like all experiments, it took a test run or two to figure out what works best. The game started off with Pidgey, a humble pigeon-esque Pokemon that completes its evolution cycle as a more eagle-inspired Pidgeot. This first card is about disrupting your opponent's strategy by using Hurricane to put their meticulously powered-up Charizard back in their hand and force them back to square one. It can be near impossible to win a game with this card, unless your opponent has only one Pokemon in play and this wipes it out, but it can serve as a nice wrench in the works.
However, by the time the FireRed LeafGreen reboots came around, Pokemon had a more concrete vision for these Pokemon. The Pidgeot here has an amazing Poke-Power: once per turn you can just take a card from your deck. This is a game-winning power. Energy? Trainers? Whatever resources you need to pull ahead, Pidgeot can swoop in and fetch for you. It comes at the cost of having to keep a little bird alive on your Bench long enough to evolve it, but the pay-off more than makes up for it.
In the second Generation, Pokemon introduced Day and Night cycles to the game, and with them came the need for Pokemon that would obviously only be active at certain times. This meant the introduction of an owl-themed Pokemon. Hoothoot goes the route of being a perfect orb with accessories, and I've always loved his design. There's just nothing friendlier than a happy circle. Its evolution is much leaner and intimidating looking--Noctowl evokes a displeased librarian, looking to shush whoever disturbs their studying. Likewise, its original card has that same spirit of smacking down anyone who gets too rowdy. Its power is a sharp gaze that can allow you to rob your opponent of a precious Trainer card. Control like this is hard to come across in Pokemon, and it makes this Noctowl a powerful Bench sitter. Just be careful to keep it tucked away from the frontlines, because low HP makes it an easy target.
HeartGold SoulSilver has a Noctowl that is a little less ambitious. This Noctowl just wants to bring you a fresh card every turn, like a domestic cat that eagerly drops dead mice at the foot of your bed. However, free draws are something I'll never say no to, and it would go great in a deck that plays hard and fast and sometimes overextends itself.
The Hoenn region brought us the foul-tempered Swellow. This bird has more akin to the easily-angered Spearow than the docile Pidgey, with a Poke-Power that shows just how unpleasant this Pokemon can be. Drive Off is like a free Lysandre, allowing you to keep your opponent on their toes.
Unfortunately, this isn't a Bench ability. In order to use it, Swellow has to be your Active Pokemon, and its lackluster attack means it will struggle to take down whatever Pokemon it dredged up. With 0 Retreat Cost, you might be able to switch it out before you attack, but that means you won't consistently be able to use this. It's really more of a calculated gambit than a revolving door.
The XY Base Set beefed up this Ability (it's an actual Ability now, not a Poke-Power). Swellow reappears with Drive Off showing up again. This time Swellow can assist from the safety of the Bench, meaning this power has the potential to be much more disruptive and consistently aggravating. How is your opponent supposed to strategically attach Energy when they aren't sure what Pokemon will be on the front lines next? The Pokemon itself isn't too shabby, with a decent Wing Attack and modest HP. Stuff a couple Wally in your Deck and you can turn your Tailow into a powerful ally.
Come Gen IV, Pokemon saw that their beloved birds were not so beloved by power hungry players, so they decided to make a slightly more aggressive bird. It's no coincidence that this Pokemon is called "Starly." While it may look like a plump little friend, its real life counterpart the starling is, to put it frankly, a hell bird that has no friends. Oh sure, they flock together in large numbers (to the point that they are a legitimate hazard to airplanes and other air traffic) but they do so for the purpose of driving out other species of birds. The European starling is an invasive species, and they will team up and kill other kinds of birds. They don't do this for food, as they are not birds of prey. They're just massive, bloodthirsty jerks. So naturally, the Pokemon based on them is far more aggressive as well.
Staraptor might be but a humble bird, but it boasts the same self-destructive tendencies of real starlings. In its first TCG appearance in the Diamond and Pearl set, the Brave Heart attack does a lot of damage, but it also has the potential to wipe out Staraptor, too. Not exactly an ideal end for a Stage 2 Pokemon you spent four Energy on! Personally, I'm not convinced that this aggressive bird is a step up from its more cunning counterparts.
However, Supreme Victors showed us that it is possible to tame this bird and replace its kamikaze ways with something more sustainable. Staraptor FB Lv.X has another amazing Poke-Power in Last Call. Being able to fish out any supporter card from your deck is a useful ability, and one I would gladly build into my decks. It makes sense that this finely trained Pokemon belongs to the ultimate Battle Butler Darach.
Unfezant is one of those Pokemon that I have a hard time conceptualizing as anyone's favorite. Oh, I know someone out there cherishes this Pokemon, but I can't understand why. It has some interesting sexual dimorphism in that, much like real pheasants, the female is more drab and colored for camouflage while the male sports a bright red target that says "I don't care if this gets me killed, I'm trying to score a lady." However, its first card in Black and White was not nearly as flashy as the bird. It's the very definition of vanilla.
The early-game Pokemon often get a bad rap for being "generic" or "repetitive," but as we've seen, once you take a closer look at each one you can see that isn't true. They have certain elements in common, but there's a difference between thematically resonant and copy-and-paste.
With Unfezant, that holds up in the sense that the cards are usually focused on flashy, risky attacks. It is the embodiment of "go big or go home." For example, in Roaring Skies, the Unfezant there has the potential to do 200 damage if you power up his Sky Attack with Feather Dance—or you can land a tails and do absolutely nothing, wasting two whole turns only to fall on your face. If you put a Trick Coin on him, you'd have a card that could give even some Pokemon V a run for their money.
I love Talonflame. It goes from a wee little Fletchling to this powerful bird, and the additional Fire Type makes it stand out from the rest of the flock. Talonflame is an aggressive Pokemon, but not in the same vicious way as Staraptor or Unfezant. It's more calculated, even regal.
In its first TCG appearance in the XY Base Set, it is definitely a force to be reckoned with. For a singular Energy, it can force your opponent to shuffle their hand into their deck. It is the equivalent of a Red Card or Judge, and not doing damage is a worthwhile tradeoff if you use it wisely! Wait until your opponent has expended cards like Skyla or Steven to get what they need, and then send them back to square one. Couple it with a pretty decent second attack, and you are looking for a Pokemon that can pull double-duty as attacker and disrupter. Even if Flare Blitz forces you to discard Energy, its low cost means that one Blacksmith or an attainable amount of Burning Energy can keep it rolling.
XY Steam Siege contains one of my all-time favorite cards. The Talonflame in this set has the Gale Wings Ability, which allows you to play this fully evolved Pokemon at the beginning of the game. If you do, you can start the game using Aero Blitz. 40 damage for a single Energy is amazing on its own, but being able to search your deck for any two cards is absolutely overpowered. Any wild, janky combo you can think of is possible with this card.
"Yeah, but what are the chances of drawing this card in my starting hand?" I hear you ask.
Well, if you have no Basic Pokemon in your deck, 100%. You'll just keep mulliganing until you draw this card. I used to play a deck that used this strategy for one such janky combo. It included Battle Compressor (now a banned card, rest in peace) plus Archie's Ace in the Hole or Maxie's Hidden Ball Trick to get a massive Pokemon like Primal Kyogre or Primal Groudon onto your Bench. Played right, the deck was surprisingly consistent and pretty fun.
In the Alola region, the bird of choice is an unassuming little woodpecker named Pikipek. Through the miracle of evolution, it turns into the toucan-themed Toucannon. Despite being only Normal/Flying, Toucannon has the power to fry its prey using soundwaves fired from its massive beak. The SM Base Set Toucannon has a Beak Blast attack with the potential to inflict Burn.
The Lost Thunder Toucannon can also Burn its opponents in addition to having a beefy second attack. Burn is a neat gimmick for this colorful Pokemon, since it's a pretty nasty status effect usually restricted only to Fire Pokemon. With Toucannon being Colorless, you can splash some Burn into basically any deck.
Finally, we come to the Galar Region. From the moment that Corviknight was first revealed, people were excited for this enormous, tough looking bird. There was originally speculation that it would be a Dark Type because of its intimidating design, but Corviknight lives up to its name as a knight in shining armor. It's Steel, and it is a solid wall of defense. High HP and the ability to reduce damage mean Corviknight does a stupendous job as a shield.
Then in Darkness Ablaze, we got a Corviknight with an ability almost as good as a full heal. Flying Taxi allows you to scoop up a Pokemon, meaning you can take back something close to being Knocked Out, as well as all resources attached to it, into your hand. It helps cheat your opponent from collecting a prize card (or two or three, depending on if it's a V MAX Pokemon). Just in the nick of time, Corviknight swoops in to save a Pokemon in distress.
So while they may often be overlooked, our bird buddies are anything but generic placeholders. Just like the diversity of real birds, each has their own special niche to fill. Some of these Pokemon are even surprisingly useful. They may not often take center stage, but they make wonderful support, aiding your team in flying to new heights. So next time you are brainstorming a fun deck to use, don't forget that oftentimes a good support is every bit as powerful as a strong offense, and that our feathered friends deserve a chance to soar.