By Bill Pulliam
Those of us who spend time among the birds find many different pleasures in it. There is, of course, the basic enjoyment of nature and the outdoors. In a world of ever-present electronic screens and synthetic experience, a lot can be said for spending time among things that are not creations of the human mind.
Some find their joy in the detailed, intimate familiarity with wild creatures. Watching them feed, argue and raise young is a never-ending show far more real than anything on “reality” television.
For many of us there is also the joy of being among all the members of our local avifauna. As I have written before, for me, the birds are how I experience a location and a landscape. Tennessee summer means Indigo Buntings, Colorado winter means Rough-legged Hawks. The birds are a fundamental part of the total sense of “place.”
And there is the joy of finding rare birds. For many birders, the thrill of the rarity chase becomes the primary motivator. The hunt for rare birds with camera and binoculars can be every bit as obsessively consuming as the hunt for game and fish with rifle, shotgun, bow or rod and reel. It all seems to feed the same primal urge to search, pursue and catch. It also can become the foundation of competitive games between birders.
There often comes a time in the career of a new birder when they catch the “Rarity Bug.” Suddenly they find themselves driven to seek out the new and unusual. When this happens, there is a very basic and essential thing that they need to remember:
Rare birds are rare!
You’d think this little tautology would go without saying. But there seems to be a quirk in the human psychology that makes people forget it. Picture this little scene I have participated in many times:
Someone describes something to me, and I give them two possible explanations. One of the options is a fairly ordinary thing, the other is rare and unusual. They almost always pick the rare one. The more I stress how unlikely it is, the more convinced they become that this is exactly what they saw. I call this the “Rarity Bias.”
I personally think that this rarity bias comes from the innate desire in each of us to feel special and experience special things. So we want to believe that what we saw was objectively special, unusual and rare. Part of learning to be a good observer is overcoming the “rarity bias,” and training yourself to look for the evidence that tells you what you are in fact really seeing. Is it a rare bird, or a common bird in an odd place, or posture, or plumage?
The white bird in the flock of sparrows in the winter in Tennessee is almost never a Snow Bunting. It is usually a leucistic individual of a common species, and when you look in more detail you will see that it is in every way, for example, an ordinary Field Sparrow other than having big white blobs in its plumage. The big hawk harassing your chickens is probably not a Goshawk, and a closer look will likely reveal the telltale field marks proving it to be a much less rare Red-tailed or Cooper’s Hawk.
Another common situation where people seem to feel that the bird must have been something rare is when their encounter with it was especially dramatic or startling. A brightly colored bird might suddenly appear in the kitchen window. A huge hawk might fly right in front of their car at eye level. Somehow the personal feeling of a special encounter wants to transfer it into an objective knowledge that the bird was something rare and unusual.
Fact is, though, we have many quite common birds in Tennessee that are startlingly bright in their colors. And many common hawks can make you jump out of your skin if you come across one close up. One of the day-to-day joys of birding is just how beautiful, commanding and impressive our common birds can be.
A case in point would be the Bald Eagle. Many people eagerly tell me about their sightings of Bald Eagles. And truly a Bald Eagle is a wonderful to thing to see in the wild. But, they are not rare. They nest all over Tennessee, and even more come to spend the winter here. The Bald Eagle is a great conservation story, and thanks to restoration efforts, they are once again a frequent sight in much of the United States. This does not make them any less special, but they are no longer a rare bird. And for this we should be thankful!
Of course, rare birds really do turn up, and they can appear anywhere at any time. Ludlow Griscom, the pioneering early 20th century ornithologist, hypothesized that eventually every species of North American Bird will be found in every U.S. State. Though this has not yet come to pass, the list of birds that have been found in Tennessee includes a crane from Siberia and a flycatcher from South America, both of which are believed to have flown here under their own power. It’s all about the wings. Birds have them, and they use them.
But the fact that birds can and do show up in very unexpected places does not change the fact that rare birds are rare, and most of the time when beginning birders think they have found one, they really have not. It’s also true that the experts and the books do not know everything; but we do know quite a lot. We’ve learned a fair bit about what birds are normally found where and when, and even about when and where the rare birds are most likely to appear.
So just remember, rare birds are rare. But, just like people, any bird can be special.
Bill Pulliam got started in birdwatching by his junior high science teacher in 1974, and has been an avid birder ever since in 48 U.S. states and 7 foreign countries. He is currently the Tennessee editor for eBird, a online project that compiles millions of observations from tens of thousands of birders around the world.