Birds of a feather, as the old saying goes, tend to flock together, but what happens when a member of the flock stands out from the rest? Although conventional wisdom mandates that being conspicuous is not helpful for most wild creatures, some of them can’t help but get attention. Different readers have brought to my attention some birds at their homes that instantly stood out.
Sara and Ed Gschwind, residents of Bristol, Tennessee, have been keeping tabs on an American robin in their yard that is showing an extensive amount of white feathers in its plumage. For the most part, this particular robin has a white head, largely white wings and extensive white in the typically red breast. “My 88-year-old mother, Nora Rockett, suggested I send a photo to you,” Sara wrote in an email.
Sara said that her mother, who has lived in Bristol all her life, has never seen anything like it. I replied to Sara’s email, asking for a few more details.
While the robin interacts with others of its kind, the Gschwinds haven’t seen any evidence this particular robin is attempting to nest. Ed took a photograph of the robin enjoying the water in a bird bath in the Gschwind yard.
“The robin bathes every day, and loves the water like all robins do,” Sara wrote. “The robin has been here since the robins returned three months ago. I’m trying to keep it happy.” Since the robin is a regular visitor, I agree that they’re doing a good job keeping the bird happy, since it’s not shown any inclination to leave their yard.
Tom Brake, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, contacted me through Facebook about a male purple martin with extensive white feathers residing at the purple martin colony he has established at his home.
Purple martins are the largest member of the swallow family in the United States. Like many other swallow species, they nest in colonies. Martins are cavity-nesting birds that readily accept hollow gourds or special purple martin condominiums for nesting.
“Currently I have nests in 43 compartments with 20 being active (eggs having been laid),” Tom wrote. “Last year I had 51 pairs, and I hope to get close to being back to 60 or 70 active pairs this year. The next two weeks will be the busy time for completion of nests and laying.”
As for the bird showing the white feathers, Tom has named him “Leuie” because the bird is an example of leucism, a condition related to albinism.
Albinism is a genetic, or inherited, condition resulting in a complete lack of production of pigmentation. Albino birds are, for the most part, extremely uncommon. I’ve heard of a variety of birds, ranging from hummingbirds and American robins to various ducks and swallows, that have a tendency to produce albino individuals.
Leucism is another genetic mutation that causes affected birds to grow feathers that are pale or whitish overall. A faint pattern may be visible. Leucism is also uncommon, but is more common that albinism. Both the robin in the Gschwind yard and the purple martin at Tom’s home are examples of leucistic birds.
Tom noted that “Leuie” is doing well so far. “He has a mate, but their first clutch of four eggs was either thrown out by a second year male martin or discarded by themselves because they sensed non-viability,” Tom wrote in a Facebook message. “Maybe the cold, wet weather had something to do with the loss.” He noted that the same thing happened recently to two other nests.
“Leuie and mate are still using their gourd, so I expect they will re-clutch,” Tom wrote. The term “re-clutch” means that Leuie’s mate will lay a new batch of eggs and Leuie will be ready to carry out his own paternal duties to help raise any resulting young.
Albinism and leucism are not the only conditions that can affect pigment in a bird’s feathers. Some birds have the opposite problem in that they produce too much pigment, resulting in a much darker bird than what would be typical. The plumage of such affected birds is described as melanistic, which is in stark contrast to an albino bird. With a melanistic bird, the feathers are much darker than usual because of an abundance of pigment. In rare albino birds, the opposite occurs and the lack of pigment in the feathers leave them looking white. Completely albino birds also tend to have red eyes. It’s probably better for a bird to be melanistic. Albino birds tend to stick out like sore thumbs, attracting the attention of predators.
I’ve only seen a few albino or partial albino birds in person, although I have observed videos and photographs of such birds. During a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2006, I observed an albino Brewer’s blackbird. An albino blackbird is almost an oxymoron. This particular blackbird had a white upper body and head and a black lower body. At first, I thought it might be a small tern, but closer observation — and identification of the birds with which it was associating — eventually confirmed that it was a Brewer’s blackbird, a common species in Salt Lake City.
Those observations remain my best looks at albino birds in the wild. I’ve also seen partial albinos, including an American Crow with white feathers in its wings that inhabited the woodlands and fields at my home for several years. I’ve also observed a couple of American goldfinches over the years that would probably qualify as leucistic birds.
A few years ago, I saw an albino Red-tailed hawk while driving between Erwin, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina, on Interstate 26. The hawk was often present near the North Carolina Visitors Center. I’ve also heard from readers over the years about birds such as American goldfinches and downy woodpeckers exhibiting albino tendencies.
These issues involving the absence or abundance of pigment can complicate bird identification. After all, all-white birds, from snowy owls and tundra swans to great egrets and snow geese, do exist in nature. Even in these birds, however, there’s usually some other color present to break up the uniformity of the bird’s plumage. Keep in mind that such rarities as albino individuals of such common species as house finches and American robins can show up at your feeders or in your yard. It’s just another way birds constantly surprise us.
To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.