Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: Rarity has a value all of its own

A A A

Why is rarity so prized? What deep psychological roots in us does it tap? It clearly has nothing to do with the inherent properties of a given object, as a tatty and overprinted postage stamp will have immense allure for stamp collectors, if very rare, whereas a clean and exceptionally beautiful stamp which has just been issued in its millions will carry no cachet.

Rarity seems to bestow its own glamour and value. Perhaps its resonance comes from our tribal past and is linked with exclusivity – rare objects were exclusively the property of the most powerful individuals. It certainly conveys its own fascination, and experiments have shown that people will look upon commonplace objects or creatures quite differently if they are told that they are exceptionally scarce. Which is why stories about rare fauna and flora are good stories – I know, having written scores of them myself – and why accounts of the rarest are the best stories of all. The story of the last Spix's macaw, for instance, the pale blue parrot from northern Brazil which for 10 years was represented in the wild by one lone remaining individual, went round the world. But the story of the ivory bill is in a class of itself.

Maybe you have to be an American to feel the force of the legend of the ivory-billed woodpecker, sometimes known as the Lord God bird from the awed exclamations of people who caught sight of it in the dense forests of the southern states where it lived: a whacking great vision of black, white and scarlet, bigger than a crow. As its forests were chopped down in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the ivory bill got scarcer and scarcer, until in the 1940s it disappeared altogether: the last accepted record was in 1948. Since then it has been presumed extinct. But not by everybody.

Over the past half century numerous enigmatic and furtive glimpses have been reported, never backed up by incontrovertible evidence, but enough to persuade a substantial body of American birders and ornithologists that the Lord God bird is Out There. This came to a head in 2004 and 2005 when the most dynamic bird study centre in the world, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York State) mounted an ambitious expedition to find the ivory bill in a remote part of Arkansas, and eventually announced it had succeeded.

Cue natural history sensation. It made front pages around the globe. The Cornell Lab director, John Fitzpatrick, and his team claimed to have made several sightings of a male ivory bill and produced a blurred video of what looked like a large black and white woodpecker flying away. Wonderful! But doubts set in, especially after America's leading bird artist, David Sibley, reanalysed the video with several academic colleagues and said it could perfectly well have been of the not dissimilar pileated woodpecker. Since then, ivory bill controversy has gripped the ornithological world in the US, with people taking sides and passions running high. I've met one of the ornithologists on the Arkansas expedition, who told me of her own sighting (I was riveted). She said: "I've been treated as a fantasist, and I've been treated like a rock star, but I know what I saw."

The ivory bill now represents the Holy Grail of American ornithology, perhaps of ornithology anywhere, such is our fascination with rarity. But even if it does still exist, it may not be the rarest bird in the world. That distinction may belong to the po'ouli, a Hawaian honeycreeper not seen since 2004, or the slender-billed curlew, not definitely seen since 2001, or perhaps the eskimo curlew, not seen since 1981, or Australia's night parrot, refound in 2006. The stories of these species. and of a few dozen more which are teetering on the brink of extinction, or may indeed have toppled over, are told at length in two books which have just appeared virtually simultaneously: Facing Extinction: The World's Rarest Birds And The Race To Save Them by Paul Donald, Nigel Collar, Stuart Marsden and Deborah Pain, and the Atlas Of Rare Birds by Dominic Couzens.

They're quite different in approach: the first is virtually an academic treatise by four ornithological scientists, although immensely accessible to the general reader and beautifully illustrated; the second is squarely aimed at a popular audience but authoritatively written by one of our best writers on birds, with fascinating maps. The two complement each other beautifully (although that can hardly have been the intention of either publisher), and you would do well to buy them both – if you've just been paid, or had a small lottery win, as the pair will set you back a penny short of seventy quid.

But open either one and you'll enter into that enigma, rarity, which casts its inescapable spell over the human mind when reverberating around stamps, or coins, or wines, or books, but to some of us is even more effective when enveloping our fellow creatures, especially ones so singular they prompt the naming of the Lord.

Happier news for the red-backed shrike

To speak of a rare British bird: last week in The Independent I reported on the happy return of the red-backed shrike after a long absence. I mentioned it had been away from England for 18 years, but also said it had been absent from Britain as a whole during that time. Not so: it has bred several times in Scotland and Wales since 1992. I am happy to put the record straight.

For further reading

'Facing Extinction: The World's Rarest Birds And The Race To Save Them', by Paul Donald, Nigel Collar, Stuart Marsden and Deborah Pain, (T & AD Poyser, 2010); 'Atlas Of Rare Birds', by Dominic Couzens (New Holland, 2010)

Suggested Topics
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voices

News
people

Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
art
News
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee
people

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree Group - Leeds

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree Group - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - SThree Group - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: SThree Group has been...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Computer Futures

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London