It was a cold, overcast Saturday morning in Salem, Ore., when Jesse Laney set out to see a painted bunting. He ‘d heard earlier that week through a birding WhatsApp group that this dynamic, rainbow-colored bird was in the location. Painted buntings ( Passerina ciris) are common in places like Texas and the northern parts of Mexico, however a rarity in Oregon. Laney and his sons raced to the website and started searching– however the bird eluded them.

He wasn’t too disappointed. Simply the chance of seeing an uncommon bird “scratches the ever-present itch of participating in a small bit of discovery,” states Laney, an ecologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

That itch has actually now influenced research debunking a popular misconception among birders: That an uncommon bird sighting causes more sightings of other rare bird species because birders flock to a location to find the initial bird. This phenomenon is called the Patagonia Picnic Table Impact.

Common crane in Oregon
Common crane ( Grus grus) sightings are uncommon in the Pacific Northwest. In 2020, ecologist Jesse Laney identified one in Oregon. Thomas Landgren/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Its origin story dates back to sometime in the 1960 s or ’70 s. Though details are a bit uncertain, birders saw an uncommon black-capped gnatcatcher, or a set of rose-throated becards, in Patagonia, a town near the Arizona-Mexico border. Word navigated and birders came down on the town, which led to sightings of other unusual birds, including a five-striped sparrow and a yellow grosbeak, according to some accounts.

To figure out if such discovery bonanzas are one-off events or a common occurrence, Laney and his colleagues examined data from 2008 to 2017 from the online database eBird. Passionate birders normally submit their checklists– that is, birds they have found on a trip– to the website.

The team determined 273 so-called mega-rarities primarily in the continental United States; these are the hardest-to-find birds, either since there are so few of them or since they seldom show up in some geographical locations. The scientists then assessed unusual bird discovery rates before and after crowds raced to where those ultra-uncommon birds were found.

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The rates stayed basically the same, the group reports January 21 in PeerJ, at 8 detections per 1,000 checklists. Birders had no better chance of discovering a 2nd types of unusual bird in a location where there was a recent uncommon bird sighting than they did during routine birding.

This belief that a person success can result in more isn’t limited to the birding neighborhood. When an athlete amazingly makes one shot after another, that streak is referred to as the hot hand result ( SN: 1/12/12). We wish to believe such patterns exist, states Andreas Wilke, a psychologist at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. That believing as soon as provided people an evolutionary benefit when it concerned such survival abilities as finding food, he says. “It’s a really adaptive thing to do but it can misfire in modern environments when we look at extremely random circulations of things and begin to see patterns that don’t exist.”


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