I felt something of an outsider at Oare Marshes bird reserve near Faversham. This was a place populated by two forms of life, the genus of birds and bird watchers. To my diffident eyes all the birds looked lovely, from mallards to long-beaked, coffee coloured things, called godwits, according to a chap carrying an impressive stubby telescope with upward angled view finder. He seemed to find genuine peace gazing into that view finder, as though he were an old shepherd and the birds were his flock. We were standing in a shed. Along the wall opposite the door ran a line of three bunker slits, which seemed to magnify a glittering body of water with an island off to the left side.
We watched groups of godwits for a few minutes. The old shepherd decided to move on to other pastures. He was replaced by a second birdwatcher. Heavily equipped with bags, binoculars and that standard, stubby telescope, she looked like birdwatching special forces, and spoke with senior officer authority.
“Did you see the hobby fly over just now? Boomerang shaped wings?”
We admitted missing it.
“There were some cormorants over on the other pond,” my wife replied, trying to make conversation.
“Cormorants, yes,” said the woman, metaphorically patting my wife’s empty head.
We left the hide, chastened.
It seemed that while cormorants flocked to Oare, hobbies were a more unusual sight. Doing some reading after our visit, I discovered that birdwatchers enjoy observing birds, but their ultimate goal is to collect sightings of rare birds, referred to as megaticks in twitcher jargon. I also discovered that while birdwatchers seek rare birds, they are not nearly so interested in odd ones. If a species of bird mates with another species and produces a hybrid, then this unusual and rare individual is not sought after. It does not fit into search lists, and is considered, by some schools of thought, as a threat to biodiversity. These unfortunate creatures are sometimes more likely to get shot than photographed. A new and unknown bird has no value, even if there might only be one example. Rarity, it seems, is not solely about how scarce something is. A few examples of an old species are rare: a few examples of a new hybrid species are imposters.
I then wondered if the bird-watching world had examples of that other type of rarity valued by collectors – the unusual variation in something very numerous – the equivalent of the Queen’s head upside down on one stamp in ten million. A brief internet search soon told me that birdwatching made the mainstream press in 2018, when someone spotted an albino house sparrow in Somerset. Crucially this rare bird was not a hybrid, but an extremely unusual variation of a common bird – though not as common as they once were, sadly.
So this association of rarity with the well established, and with small variations in something very numerous – both indicate that an apparent interest in rarity is actually a lesson in the extremely conservative way people tend to react to something out of the ordinary. It is fitting that humanity’s general idea of rarity is so closely connected with tradition and Old Money. We could think of Fabergé eggs, dusty bottles of wine from 1945, First Folios of Shakespeare, or caviar derived from sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, served in Pall Mall clubs by deferential waiters. Perhaps we should bear this in mind at the moment. Maybe we are too quick to see value in the well established, and threat in the different. And maybe we are limited by only valuing differences which are small albino-sparrow variations on what we already know. It would be good to remember that all individuals are different and unique in some way. We are all rare and valuable specimens.