Friday, May 8, 2009

Chasing the leucistic robin

Here is an article I wrote this week. This evening I spent about two hours in the yard where this robin and its mate have their nest. I got about 100 pictures of the male leucistic robin.

Leucistic Robin

“I have an albino robin in my yard,” a caller reported recently. “Are you interested in seeing it?”

Of course I was interested; I am a birder and am always looking for new things to see and write about.

Several days later I met the caller in the late evening.

“Maybe he has gone to bed for the night, but he was just here about 15 minutes ago.”

Almost before the words were out of the landowner’s mouth a red-breasted white bird flew into a nearby tree. Soon the bird was on the ground working the grass like all robins do. It was getting dark, almost too dark, but sneaking up behind a tree I was able to snap a couple of pictures.

Soon it was joined by a normal colored robin. The flirting between the two of them resembled many pairs of robins I had observed in the past.

“His mate,” said my guide. “He has come here for the last three years. Every year he becomes a little more whiter. Must be old age.”

With normal eye color and the breast mostly red, this robin is not an albino, but has a condition called leucism. This condition is caused when all 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.

Leucism resulted in this robin when patches of skin lacked the ability of producing pigment. Pale bills and legs are also a sign of leucism.

I saw my first leucistic bird last year while staying at a monastery for retired Catholic nuns in northern Idaho at an educational conference.

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 later of it while 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 both 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.

“It looks like most feathers on the robin are either white or normal, but at least one of the primaries looks washed out,” said Cliff , a recognized expert on bird who lives Idaho. “I think that along with the pale legs and bill makes it leucistic.”

Got an odd bird who regularly visits your yard? Contact me. It may take me a few days to get to your place, but I would love to learn from it and you.


Jann E. said...

Wow, this is fabulous! I didn't know a leucistic robin existed! Fascinating! What a pretty robin, too. Nifty looking blackbird too.

Mary Howell Cromer said...

What an interesting bird. No, mine was not leucistic, it was just the lighting I had available. Thank you for your kind words~