It was a cold, overcast Saturday morning in Salem, Ore., when Jesse Laney set out to catch a glimpse of a painted bunting. He’d heard earlier that week through a birding WhatsApp group that this vibrant, rainbow-colored bird was in the area. Painted buntings (Passerina ciris) are common in places like Texas and the northern parts of Mexico, but a rarity in Oregon. Laney and his sons raced to the site and began searching — but the bird eluded them.
He wasn’t too disappointed, though. Just the chance of seeing a rare bird “scratches the ever-present itch of participating in a small bit of discovery,” says Laney, an ecologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
That itch has now inspired research debunking a popular myth among birders: That a rare bird sighting leads to more sightings of other rare bird species because birders flock to an area to find the initial bird. This phenomenon is called the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect.