Tag Archives: Albino American Robin

Readers report on robin, purple martin that stand out from other members of their flocks

 

Albino-Swallow

Photo by Jean Potter • Two barn swallows in typical plumage perch on a wire with an albino individual.

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.

Robin-PartialAlbino

Photo by Ed Gschwind • A leucistic American robin enjoy time in a bird bath. Albino and leucistic birds are rather rare in nature.

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.”

PurpleMartin-Albino-TomBrake

Photo by Tom Brake • A leucistic male purple martin perches with its mate, a typical female purple martin, near a hollow gourd they may use for nesting purposes.

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.

Robins-AlbinoAndRegular

Photo by Ed Gschwind • Compare the leucistic American robin in the bird bath with the typical robin perched in a nearby chair. Albino birds are rather rare in nature.

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.

Albino-Hawk

Photo by Jean Potter • This partial albino red-tailed hawk was spotted for several years near the state line dividing northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

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.

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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.

Pileated Woodpecker has inspired various common names

Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler A Pileated Woodpecker forages on a willow tree at the Elizabethton home of Tom and Helen Stetler.

Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler
A Pileated Woodpecker forages on a willow tree at the Elizabethton home of Tom and Helen Stetler.

I received an email recently from Tom and Helen Stetler. The Stetlers live in Elizabethton and often attend bird walks offered by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

“We have a Pileated Woodpecker working on our dead willow tree for the past two days,” Tom wrote in the email. “It has made a fairly large hole at the base of the tree. The diameter at the base is about eight inches. It looks like there are some bugs inside the tree, maybe some termites.”

He added an interesting tidbit of information about Pileated Woodpeckers.

“Our old-timey neighbor calls it a wood hen,” Tom wrote in the email.

The Pileated Woodpecker has actually had an abundance of common names associated with it.

English naturalist Mark Catesby, who died in 1749, gave this large bird the name of “Large Red-crested Woodpecker.” The Swedish botanist apparently gave the woodpecker the scientific name of Dryocopus pileatus.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

Another English naturalist, John Latham, apparently gave the bird the common name of Pileated Woodpecker, basing the name on the scientific name established by Linnaeus.

Beyond this history of how the bird eventually got the name Pileated Woodpecker, there are a lot of folk names for this particular bird, including such interesting ones as “King of the Woods” and “Stump Breaker.”

The loud vocalization of this woodpecker has also inspired names such as Wood Hen as mentioned by Tom in his email. Other names along these lines include “Indian Hen” and “Laughing Woodpecker.”

If anyone knows of other common names for the Pileated Woodpecker, I’d enjoy hearing about them.

Depending on whether you believe that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still exists somewhere in Cuba or Arkansas, the Pileated Woodpecker is the largest of North America’s woodpeckers.

Pileated Woodpeckers are cavity-nesting birds, and they use their large, stout bills to efficiently excavate their own nesting cavities in dead or dying trees. These cavities can be used in later nesting seasons by such cavity-nesting birds, such as Eastern Screech-owls and Wood Ducks, that are incapable of excavating their own nesting cavities.

Male Pileated Woodpecker show a red whisker stripe on the side of the face that is absent in the female. Otherwise, they look similar.

These large woodpeckers — they can reach a length of about 19 inches — often forage close to the ground on old stumps or fallen logs.

The Pileated Woodpecker is widespread in the United States and Canada, favoring wooded areas in both countries. This woodpecker has proven adaptable, now thriving even in suburban areas offering sufficient woodland habitat.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A Northern Flicker calls from atop a utility pole.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Northern Flicker calls from atop a utility pole.

Pileated Woodpecker was among the 49 species of birds found during the third of the four Saturday Bird Walks being held in October. This walk took place on Oct. 18 at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton.

A total of 10 participants took part in the Saturday bird walk at Sycamore Shoals. A persistent wind made it feel cool, and we spent some of the walk enjoying sunshine that gradually gave way to overcast skies.

The walk yielded observations of 49 species of birds, including quite a few surprises.

A flock of 18 Great Egrets that flew over our heads, following the course of the Watauga River, was perhaps one of the more unanticipated moments.

Photo by Bryan Stevens An American Coot on the Watauga River.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
An American Coot on the Watauga River.

I also enjoyed some seasonal firsts, including the first American Coot I have seen this fall. The Ring-billed Gull that soared repeatedly overhead was also a first autumn observation. Both coots and gulls spend the winter months at area lakes, rivers and, quite often, parking lots. The winter of 2013-2014 saw a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls spending its days in the parking lot at the Elizabethton Wal-Mart.

For this far into October, we also did fairly well with warblers, finding five species — Tennessee, Chestnut-sided, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped and Palm — during the walk along the park’s trails.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

In addition to Pileated Woodpecker, other woodpeckers found during the walk included Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Other species found included Canada Goose, Mallard, Pied-billed Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Killdeer, Mourning Dove, Chimney Swift, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern Phoebe, Blue-headed Vireo, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Gray Catbird, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle, House Finch and American Goldfinch.

The last of the planned October Saturday bird walks will begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park on Oct. 26. The public is welcome. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing enjoyment.

For more information, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or call the park at 543-5808. Readers are welcome to follow me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

Photo by Bryan Stevens An Eastern Phoebe perches in a sapling.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
An Eastern Phoebe perches in a sapling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get ready to take part in this week’s 2014 Great Backyard Bird Count

Welcome to my new blog, “Our Fine Feathered Friends.” I hope everyone who has enjoyed reading my columns through the years will flock here to keep up to date with our birds and birding opportunities in the region.

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From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, bird watchers from more than 100 countries are expected to participate in the 17th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb. 14–17, 2014.

I have plenty of time to participate this year, and that’s exactly what I plan to do. Anyone anywhere in the world can count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count and enter their sightings at http://www.BirdCount.org.

The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track the health of bird populations at a scale that would not otherwise be possible. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada.

“People who care about birds can change the world,” said Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham. “Technology has made it possible for people everywhere to unite around a shared love of birds and a commitment to protecting them.”

In North America, GBBC participants will add their data to help define the magnitude of a dramatic irruption of magnificent Snowy Owls. Bird watchers will also be on the lookout for the invasive Eurasian Collared-Dove to see if it has expanded its range again. GBBC observations may help show whether or not numbers of American Crows will continue to rebound after being hit hard by the West Nile virus and whether more insect-eating species are showing up in new areas, possibly because of changing climate.

Last year’s GBBC shattered records after going global for the first time, thanks to integration with the eBird online checklist program launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab and Audubon. Participants reported their bird sightings from all seven continents, including 111 countries and independent territories. More than 34.5 million birds and 3,610 species were recorded—nearly one-third of the world’s total bird species documented in just four days.

“This is a milestone for citizen science in so many respects—number of species, diversity of countries involved, total participants, and number of individual birds recorded. We hope this is just the start of something far larger, engaging the whole world in creating a detailed annual snapshot of how all our planet’s birds are faring as the years go by,” said Cornell Lab director Dr. John Fitzpatrick.

“Canadian participation in the Great Backyard Bird Count has increased tremendously in recent years, and it’s wonderful to see this program growing globally,” said Bird Studies Canada President Dr. George Finney. “The count is introducing unprecedented numbers of people to the exciting field of bird watching.”

The GBBC is a great way for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with nature and make a difference for birds. It’s free and easy. To learn more about how to join the count, visit www.birdcount.org and view the winning photos from the 2013 GBBC photo contest. The Great Backyard Bird Count is made possible in part by sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.

I had a great time participating in last year’s GBBC, and I plan to do so again this year. If recent weeks are any indication, there could be plenty of interesting birds out there.

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Image

Photo courtesy of Toy James
An albino American Robin at the home of Don and Toy James.

Don and Toy James shared a photo of an albino American Robin at their home in the Danner Subdivision on Jan. 15.

“My wife snapped this photo of an albino robin in our back yard,” Don wrote. “I have never seen one and thought it was interesting.”

Don said the robin was feeding on worms with the other robins in the yard.

“My wife said they all ate together and he flew away with them,” Don said. “They seemed to treat him as any other robin.”

I had inquired about any interactions they observed since sometimes birds will shun an albino invidual. Apparently, that wasn’t the case with this robin.

During a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2006, I observed an albino Brewer’s Blackbird. An albino blackbird is almost an oxymoron. That observation remains my best look at an albino bird in the wild.

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I would love to hear from readers. Just post comments on my new blog at ourfinefeatheredfriends.wordpress.com.

You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.