Sunday, July 12, 2009


What's the rarest bird you've ever seen?

The question has been on my mind since I read the July 8 Boston Globe article on how birding brings couples together. It's evidently been on other minds since then too, because Steve Grinley's Words on Birds column in the Daily News of Newburyport yesterday tackles the rarity question. Steve picks it up from the same angle that's been bugging me: Is it rare in the whole world? North America? Massachusetts? Merrimack River Plastic Penguins aside, a King Penguin would be alarmingly rare in Massachusetts but common on South Georgia. So what is is rare?

Rarity is relative. I guess that doesn't take away from the question's usefulness as a pickup line. After all, I might prefer someone who answered "rare relative to what?" than "orange-breasted falcon" whereas Peter Alden (see Globe story mentioned above) clearly prefers the orange-breasted falcon answer. I wish the story mentioned where the attractive woman had seen the orange-breasted falcon. If it was at Great Meadows, that would be rare indeed.

So what's the rarest bird I've seen? In the world? I'm still not sure. How many great bustards are left in the world? The European population of the Great Bustard is estimated to be between 35,600 and 38,500. The species is regarded as being in decline, maybe doomed. But that's practically a common bird compared to the piping plover, which numbers very roughly around 3190 in the Atlantic Coast population. I'm not counting the inland PIPL population because I don't have numbers at my finger tips but I'm sure even if you added that in the total would still be in the thousands, not the tens of thousands. I saw the Western Reef Heron when it showed up in Portsmouth, NH a couple years ago and it was only the 3rd North American record. How many Western Reef Herons are in the world? What about all the endemic finch species I saw in the Galapagos? Is one of them my rarest bird?

I could spend all day and most of next week researching the population statistics of every bird I have ever seen and their relative rarity in their own habatits and still not have a really good answer. All I know is how my heart soared out on the Hungarian puszta when I saw my first Great Bustard and how privileged I feel whenever I see a piping plover on the beach at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge during a Saturday plover warden shift.

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