SCHIESS: The rare world of partially albino birds

Living the Wild Life

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All photos courtesy Bill Schiess

While filling my bird feeders on Christmas Eve morning between church meetings, I wondered if birds had taken on some human fads and fashions. I had seen dyed orange, green and red along with streaked and frosted hair on sisters in the congregation.

Landing by one of my feeders was a House Finch, not with its normal red head like most of its relatives, but what appeared to be a frosted or streaked woman’s hair-do. After getting a few pictures, I also noticed white feathers on its wings, one normal foot and one white one with most of the leg feathers also faded or white.

“Leucistic,” I said to myself as it flew away from the feeder. It would be the sixth bird I have documented to have this condition this year; including three Trumpeter swans and two robins.

Leucism is caused when skin pigment is missing in certain areas of the body. In albinism, all the melanin is missing, causing the eyes to be red from the blood vessels showing through from behind the eyes. Not with this partial albinism – some are pretty weird. Pale beaks and legs are also a sign of leucism.

I saw my first leucistic bird a few years ago while attending an educational conference at a monastery for retired Catholic nuns in northern Idaho.

While looking out my dorm window, I saw a black and white Brewer’s blackbird feeding on the ground. I was able to get some pictures of it through the window and again later, while it was sitting on a fence as I went for a hike.

At dinner, I asked Sister Mary about it.

“Oh, it is just one of us,” she joked. “This is the fourth year it has come here and I am sure it is converting as it gets whiter each year.”

I have showed pictures of the birds to ornithologists and expert birders only to get varying comments. Some say the pigment in the skin cannot change while others say it can. But one thing is agreed upon; some of the feathers can appear “washed out” instead of pure white like the head of the finch was on Sunday.

A couple of years ago while fishing on Henry’s Lake, I got some pictures of a leucistic eared grebe among a large flock. After entering the picture on my Facebook page, I was contacted by a researcher in Europe that was documenting leucism in grebes. That picture has been published in the source book, “Ferrantla: Aberrant Plumages in Grebes Podicipedidae.”

Studies of Trumpeter swans indicate those swans hatched and raised in the Yellowstone have a higher degree of leucism than signets raised in other areas. The reason is unknown and more studies are planned on them.

This condition also occurs in humans. While growing up, I knew a boy who had a large patch of pure white in his jet black hair – hair coloring, especially temporary coloring, had not been invented yet.

If you run into a bird with weird colored feathers or animals with white patches, let me know. I would love to see them. No Holstein cows please!