The Bird Hunters

In Buzz, October 2018 by Adrienne Fouts

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They’ve taken over the streets of Raleigh: dozens of sleek, black, electric scooters, leaning up against buildings, hanging about on sidewalks or zooming around town under the feet of happy riders. As we reported last month, Bird, a dockless scooter-share company based in California, first arrived in the City of Oaks in July, with scooters popping up all over downtown early one morning and nary a heads up to anyone—except for a small group of people tasked with making sure these Birds stay flying.

Allie Jacobs and Dylan Bouterse are two local Bird “chargers,” as they’re known, and both got involved in similar ways: After riding the Bird scooters in California, they signed up on the company’s website to work as chargers. Neither thought much about it until they received messages this summer, just before the scooters appeared here, asking if they were still interested. Jacobs, Bouterse and several others met for an orientation in early July, when they received a few chargers and scooters and were told to drop scooters off in designated locations by 7 a.m. the next morning, introducing Bird to Raleigh for the first time.

The Bird chargers use an app that’s similar to the one riders use. A map shows the location of each Bird, but on the chargers’ app, it also shows the Bird’s remaining battery life. All of the scooters become available to pick up beginning at 9 p.m. each night, or as soon as a scooter hits 15 percent battery life. Jacobs and Bouterse grab a couple of scooters on their way home from work, if they can, or else they head back out later in the evening to hunt for Birds, take them home and charge them overnight. Jacobs has six Bird chargers; Bouterse has 11. The scooters have to be returned to their “nests” or drop-off locations around the city, between 4 and 7 a.m.

“You can choose to charge as much or as little as you like,” Jacobs says. “There are some people who do this as their job, but I just do it for fun.”

For many chargers, the challenge of the “hunt” for Bird scooters is the best part.

“For me, I love seeing a scooter pop up on the map and knowing that it’s like a $5 bill sitting on the ground, running out and being the first person to get it, and then bringing it back to the safety of the nest,” Bouterse says. He compares the search for scooters on the app to the popular Pokémon Go game.

Chargers are paid per scooter, which range in value between $5 and $20. Bird incentivizes scooters that haven’t been found or charged in a while by raising their value; it’s rare to find a scooter close to $20, but it can be done. There’s really no cap to how much money you can make from charging Birds, depending on how many chargers you have and how much effort you put into the process. Bouterse and his wife, Karla, set a goal of paying for half of a wedding celebration, coming up in November, with money they make from charging Birds.

Although it’s a hobby for most chargers—Jacobs and Bouterse already have steady day jobs—for some, it can become almost an obsession, Bouterse says. “There’s a whole strategy to it, if you really get into it, to make the most of the chargers that you have.”

On a nice day, when a lot of people are out riding the scooters, Bouterse knows that they will likely run out of battery power a little earlier, so he’ll be able to go out and scoop some up in the afternoon or evening instead of waiting until 9 p.m. Some of the more dedicated chargers wake up in the middle of the night to swap out scooters (which are fully charged after about five hours) so that they can charge twice as many. Others go a step further and hoard uncharged scooters in their homes until they go up in value—though this is against Bird’s policy.

Bouterse, though, isn’t interested in the money as much as in the mission of providing a good experience for Bird’s riders. He runs a Facebook group for Raleigh’s Bird chargers, which he estimates about half of the city’s chargers belong to. “Our group is very much in line with the success of the program,” Bouterse says. “We’re doing this for the riders.”

When the scooters dropped without warning this summer, they were met with mixed reactions from Raleigh residents and city officials. Some voiced concerns about safety and called to regulate the scooters or even ban them entirely. Raleigh’s City Council is set to revisit the issue soon, and city staffers are currently working on drafting rules to potentially keep riders, and the company, in check. But other companies, including Lime, which also dropped scooters in Raleigh last month, not to mention the demand from riders for scooters, seem to be outpacing the city’s ability to regulate them.

Jacobs and Bouterse, for their parts, believe strongly in Bird’s business model and think that Raleigh, with its high population of young people, is an ideal city for the Birds to live in. Both Jacobs and Bouterse are advocates for public transportation, and urge Bird riders to be responsible—wear helmets and ride on the road, not  on the sidewalk—so that the scooters can remain in town for everyone’s enjoyment.

“I’d love for us to be an example of being able to embrace this new thing,” Bouterse says. ■

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