Tag Archives: North Carolina

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.

Column marks 19th anniversary this week

Photo by Ken Thomas Cutline: Dark-eyed Juncos are also known as "snow birds" because of their tendency to flock to feeders ahead of a bout of snowy weather.

Photo by Ken Thomas
Dark-eyed Juncos are also known as “snow birds” because of their tendency to flock to feeders ahead of a bout of snowy weather.

I wrote my first “Feathered Friends” column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995. Over the years, the column has appeared in various newspapers. I’ve also been posting weekly blogs on the subject of birds since this past February.
It’s with some irony that I can now reflect in just the few months since the paper that gave the column its start decided to rudely cut ties with both the column and me, other news outlets have stepped forward to carry my weekly thoughts on birds and birding.
The column is currently published weekly in three different newspapers: the Bristol Herald Courier, the Erwin Record and The McDowell News in Marion, N.C. The column also runs weekly in the Carter County Compass, an online news source for the citizens of Elizabethton and Carter County.
 
Sometimes, I wonder where the time has gone as I reflect on the fact that I am celebrating the 19th anniversary of my writing this weekly column, which has appeared in four different newspapers. These days, I also write a weekly online blog about birds while also making bird-related and nature-related posts to my Facebook page.
 
I constantly wonder what I am going to write about each week. Fortunately, I seem to have enough interested readers that someone is usually calling or e-mailing me with an interesting observation or a question that helps get the ball rolling for another column.
 
In that respect, writing “Our Fine Feathered Friends” has also been a great means of getting to know other people interested in birds and nature. So, too, has “For the Birds” and “Feathered Friends.”
I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well.

Photo by Bryan Stevens This Dark-eyed Junco was the first of its kind to return to my yard this fall. This individual arrived on Oct. 28.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
This Dark-eyed Junco was the first of its kind to return to my yard this fall. This individual arrived on Oct. 28.

 
That first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents — the Dark-eyed Junco. The first Dark-eyed Junco to put in an appearance in my yard this year did so on Oct. 28, just a few days ahead of the first winter storm.
 
Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is the very first “Feathered Friends” column.
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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.
 
John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.a52e51c88da04850ee7b1210.L
 
Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying, “dark skies above, snow below.”
 
Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.
Junco-Carver

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     A Dark-eyed Junco on a fence at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

 
Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.
 
Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.
 
Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture. Still, most Dark-eyed Juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground.

Junco-AtFeeder

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     A Dark-eyed Junco feeds on sunflower seeds in a hanging feeder.

 
Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.
 
There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow. Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!
Junco

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                                          A Dark-eyed Junco feeds on the ground beneath a feeder.