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Sunday, October 24, 2010

White-headed Junco, Speckled Robin, what is this??? Leucistic Birds

House Sparrow, female, leucistic

We often get people sending us bird photos to identify, and nothing mystifies people more than seeing birds with strange white blotches. These are leucistic birds, normal species that are missing some of the pigment in their feathers. I photographed this female House Sparrow in GA.

House Sparrow, female, leucistic

House Sparrow, female, leucistic

This leucistic Dark-eyed Junco photo was sent to us by Dianne Connolly of NH.

The white blotches make an interesting pattern on its head, neck and throat.

This amazing photo of a leucistic American Robin against snow was sent to us by Bud Marschner,

of Fairbanks, AK. Bud is one of the wonderful photographers in our new Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Leucisim in birds, is a genetic mutation that prevents pigment, especially melanin, from being deposited in a normal way on a bird's feathers. Usually the leucistic areas are noticeable on birds with black or brown feathers, as in the above cases. Leucistic birds may have white splotches, or look paler or bleached. This is different than albino birds. Albinism is a genetic mutation that prevents the production of melanin in a bird's body. Albino birds usually appear all white with a pink eye. Scientists are still working out what these two conditions are and how they affect birds.

Birds with leucisim or albinism may have a harder time in the wild, as they may be more visible to predators and not as attractive to a potential mate.

Leucisim is very rare in birds. Thus, when 3 people living in neighboring towns in NH reported leucistic juncos to us on about the same day, we found this very interesting.

If you see a strange looking bird with whitish areas in its plumage and you cannot identify it in your field guide, look very carefully at its size and shape and what other birds it is hanging out with. Our new field guide begins each species account with a thorough description of that bird's shape. If your mystery bird looks exactly like a robin or junco or other known species, but with weird white areas in its plumage, then it may be a leucistic bird.


Birding is Fun! said...

This past spring I observed a leucistic Robin. It was completely white, except it had the normal bold orange breast and belly. I tried following it for an hour through ankle deep mud, but never got a photo. I'm sure that in certain ancient cultures it would have been an omen from the gods...a good omen I hope!

LNMP298 said...

Very interesting. I've heard of leucistic robins, cardinals, and even some hawks, but that's the first I've heard of a leucistic junco!

Bird Feeders said...

Interesting blog! I've seen all types of leucistic birds (cliff swallows, American robins, starlings) and I always wonder: how does this abnormal plumage play a role in mating!?

Judy M said...

I think we have a leucistic chickadee in our yard since October. Have seen it regularly. Of course, they are always on the move, but will try to get a snap to ID better!
Wheaton, IL

LNMP298 said...

I just had a leucistic Grackle at my feeders! First time I've seen one like this.

Judy Hanson said...

Thanks for the explanation. I guess I have a leucistic Oregon Junco at my home. I have a picture if anyone is interested.
Mt. Hood, OR

AJ said...

This solves the mystery of the junco outside my window at work here in Huntsville, Alabama. The top of his head is completely white in one round spot about the size of a dime.

Karen B said...

Hi we live on the coast of Connecticut. We saw a leucistic American Robin last spring. This year we have another and don't believe it is the same one as this one is territorial and the former was always being picked on by the other robins. I've been bird watching for 15 years now and have never seen this. Now two in the same year? I can't imagine that any mutation is good.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the post! You solved a minor bird-feeder mystery in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, where a white-capped (leucistic, I now know) junco hanging out with the other juncos in the back yard.

4thebirds1961 said...

I have recently began seeing a leusistic white headed sparrow hanging around my feeders. I was baffled because it's head was completely white down to the neck just above the wings. I knew it was some type of sparrow but could not identify it through any birding guides either online or what I had available. I am not a big fan of sparrows but this one is quite beautiful.

In Progress said...

Glad I found this blog. Apparently, I have a leucistic dark-eyed junco in among the birds at my feeders here in central NC. Its head is a very mottled black and white.

Friesfan1 said...

I just saw the Robin with the white head & back. Lots of white like in the photograph. My little camera did not get as good a picture though. It was quite extraordinary to see such a bird. So glad I did!