There seems to be something in human nature that enjoys a rarity. We like thinking we are having a unique experience or seeing a rare sight. Is it because we spend so much time in groups and have so much in common with our fellow humans that something unusual and seemingly individual makes us feel special and different?
When I was about 8 years old and the proud owner of a new Kodak Brownie camera of my very own my family all piled into the old 1955 black Oldsmobile and drove to Wellfleet to see a rare bird. Now, my family was not a family of birders. My parents fed the birds each winter and knew the names of the common birds but some of my first memories of my dad were of him crossing the barren corn fields next door in autumn looking for crows. Did I mention my dad was carrying a rifle?
Anyway, this trip from Hyannis to Wellfleet on Caped Cod was to go see an albino robin that had been captured and was being held by Wellfleet Audubon. A newspaper article had said the public was invited to come see it and so we were off on an exciting adventure. This was probably in 1963 or 64 but like many childhood memories it’s a bit blurry. We were not alone when we got to the Audubon Sanctuary and that white robin probably got its picture taken more that day than most celebrities of its time.
Somewhere in one of my many natural history notebooks full of drawings, observations and photos from my childhood is an old faded black and white photo of this poor bird sitting huddled on a bare branch in a chicken wire cage. Today it is known that albinism is nowhere near as rare an occurrence as our long car ride or the cage may have indicated but on that day my parents were convinced we had seen something very rare and very special.
A year or so later I went with a van full of kids and a naturalist from the still young Cape Cod Museum of Natural History to see an amazing, once in a life time blue lobster at the Woods Hole Aquarium. We even got to have our picture taken with the naturalist’s new Polaroid camera, in color! Talk about a rarity! In time not only did color photography become common for the masses but blue lobsters were observed to be much more common, too.
Over the years there have been many opportunities to witness rarities of the natural world where I live but elsewhere as well. A tiny deep sea octopus sitting with her eggs was kept at local museum a few years back, drawing thousands of visitors and there was a well feted and rare red footed hawk in Martha’s Vineyard. There was the search for the first fisher on Cape Cod and the ongoing mystery of where the next mountain lion will show up on the east coast. Some of us remember when coyotes were rare and how excited we were to see our first cardinals or other unusual birds. Not long ago we had an out of range manatee in Cape Cod waters that caused quite a stir. The poor thing didn’t survive the trip home to Florida.
The one thing that strikes me again and again about rarities is that it all boils down to a matter of relativity. If a magpie showed up on Cape Cod it would cause great excitement. In the western United States? Not so much. Some rarities occur as species begin to increase their ranges and actually become common as time goes on. Others, like the manatee, may be once in a life time sightings out of range or because their numbers are drastically reduced. Although it is easier to see manatees in the wild in Florida than in New England waters, they are becoming rarer there too.
It’s an interesting thought to ponder. What makes a sighting or experience rare? Does relativity count? Does rarity come with degrees? As we face more and more threats of extinction it is probably wise to save the word rare for really rare events and not just exciting or unusual ones.