It was a cold, overcast Saturday morning in Salem, Oregon, when Jesse Laney set off to glimpse a painted bunting. I had heard earlier that week through a group of WhatsApp birds that this vibrant rainbow colored bird was in the area. Painted buntings (Passerina ciris) are common in places like Texas and parts of northern Mexico, but a rarity in Oregon. Laney and his children ran to the place and began to search, but the bird dodged them.
I wasn’t too disappointed. Just the chance to see a rare bird “scratches the ever-present itch of participating in a small discovery,” says Laney, an ecologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
That itching has now inspired research that dispels a popular myth among bird watchers: that a rare bird sighting leads to more sightings of other rare bird species because birds flock to an area to find the initial bird. This phenomenon is called the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.
Thomas Landgren / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Its history of origin dates back to some time in the 60s or 70s. Although the details are a little unclear, bird watchers saw a rare black carapace hunter or a pair of pink-throated warblers in Patagonia, a nearby town to the border with Arizona and Mexico. The news changed and the birds came down to the city, which resulted in sightings of other rare birds, including a five-striped sparrow and a yellow grosbeak, according to some reports.
To determine if such discovery bonanzas are one-off events or a common occurrence, Laney and colleagues analyzed data from 2008 to 2017 from the eBird online database. Avid observers often upload to their site their checklists, that is, the birds they saw on an excursion.
The team identified 273 so-called mega-rarities primarily in the continental United States; they are the most difficult birds to find, either because they are few or because they rarely appear in some geographical locations. The researchers assessed the rare rates of bird discovery before and after the crowds ran as far as these ultra-rare birds could be seen.
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Rates remained essentially the same, the team reported on Jan. 21 on PeerJ, with 8 detections per 1,000 checklists. Bird watchers had no better chance of finding a second species of rare bird in an area where there have been sightings of rare birds recently than during routine observation.
This belief that success can lead to more is not limited to the bird community. When an athlete makes one shot after another by magic, the streak is called the hot hand effect (SN: 1/12/12). Andreas Wilke, a psychologist at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, wants to believe that such patterns that thought gave humans an evolutionary advantage when it came to survival skills like finding food, he says. "It's a very adaptable thing, but it can fail in modern environments when we observe very random distributions of things and start to see patterns that don't exist."