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Albino Birds: The brass tax when it comes to white birds

The brass tax when it comes to white birds.


This is the time of year when birds and other wildlife unlucky enough to not have their normal colors become very noticeable, such as "leucisitic," "albino" and "partial albino" forms. These unfortunate victims of a quirk of nature lack their natural colors that would normally protect them from the energy of our sun, keep them safe from inquisitive humans and predators, and be accepted as a member of their own social group.

Even the parents of their own young will sometimes shy away from their offspring if they're too far off their normal appearance. Once an albino robin begins to appear "different," the parents will eventually try to avoid it. The albino bird, on the other hand, doesn't realize that it's different and keeps trying to join the group. The two photos above are case in point. They are both "loaners," a partial albino robin, and one that almost made it, but has black eyes, not the unpigmented red eyes of a "true albino."

If a male albino bird survives winter, come nesting time it may be recognized by its prospective mate and thus will not be able to reproduce - or it may not be recognized by others of its own kind and thus chased from the group. There is a report of a pure albino female red-winged blackbird that was chased away repeatedly from the flock by its companions, and returned to the flock to be chased off again and again.

There seems to be confusion in the ornithological literature regarding the definitions of "leucism," "albinism" and "partial albinism." Some experts define leucism as a reduction in pigments of all types, but albinism as the absence of only the melanin pigments, but the presence of the other carotenoid pigments. Others define leucism as applying to those birds that have melanin in their bodies but not in some of their feathers, while albinistic birds are those that also lack melanin in the bodies.

Melanin, (Greek for "black"), is a class of compounds found in plants and animals that serves predominantly as a pigment and a strengthening agent in the feathers of birds and the fur of mammals. Without melanin birds and mammals have trouble surviving. Melanin is the stuff that not only provides strength in a bird's feathers, but also gives them a tough surface to resist wear. Hawks have black wingtips because they crash into things with their wings when pursuing prey. The dark color acts like armor and gives longer life to feathers, which is a good idea as birds molt feathers annually.

Everything I've found on leucism indicates that the condition (in which pigment cells for color are not present in the skin or feathers) is purely genetic and not nutritional in origin.

Leucistic reptiles are common in the pet trade (as evidenced by numerous web sites advertising rare color morphs for snakes, geckos and lizards), and more than one site documents leucism in birds. One of the sites states that leucism is more common in male blackbirds than it is in females, something I've noted in my many years of wandering around the wildlife refuges of the north and southwest.

Sometimes it's hard for scientists to agree on a subject when no one understands why something is happening, and that seems to be the situation with albinism. Even though the evidence is piling up, the jury is still out.

In my book, an animal without any pigment on its body covering and eyes is a full albino, a rare sight in any species of animal. Most times in the wild, true albinos just don't make it to "reproduce their kind."

Another thing, a leucistic or partial albino bird stands out like a sore thumb. I have a hunch even a raptor will think twice before it goes after a robin or other bird that stands out like a sore thumb, perhaps thinking "it just ain't natural for prey to look like that." But if hunger is stalking the predator, color becomes insignificant, and a full belly wins, which is the end of the albino.

What I'm leading up to is I would like to hear from you when you do see an albino or partial albino whatever. Mule deer, coyotes, bobcats, weasels, birds of all kinds - even red-tailed hawks - have been observed. So, keep your eyes open and drop me a line when you see one of these poor misfits. Some day I may write another book, and the subject of albinos will surely be a part of it.

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