Thursday, September 8, 2011

Birds of a different color

While watching a flock of birds feeding in a cemetery here in Santa Rosa, I caught a brief glimpse of one with the dark cap and wings of an American goldfinch, but with white feathers over the rest of his body instead of yellow. Of course, when I tried to get closer for a better look he flew off. The next day I went back, and the day after that, to see if he would return, and was pleasantly surprised to see him both days along with another similarly colored bird in a small flock of normally colored goldfinches.

Since both birds had dark eyes and all the black pigmentation was normal, I was pretty sure they weren't albino. Having no idea what else to search for I began there anyway. I found many sites discussing and showing pictures of an astonishing variety of species of birds with color aberrations. On some sites the birds I saw were described as "partial albino". An equal number of sites scoffed at that and insisted that the birds were leucistic (loo-KISS-tick).

If I understand what I've learned about how birds get their colors, yellow and red coloration are produced by carotenoids while melanin produces the "earth" colors, i.e. browns and black. Leucism is caused by a lack of  melanin. The goldfinches I saw seemed to be doing just fine in the melanin department so is it really leucism? Most of the articles I read state that it's impossible to be partially albino as albinism is, by definition, a complete lack of melanin.  So, not partially albino, either. Which leaves me wondering...well, a lot of things. And still not really able to give a name to the altered color of these not-so-gold finches.

For some general information about how birds get their colors:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Links to information and pictures about albinism, leucism, and other variations in bird color:
Birding Frontiers, Albinism, Leucism and Vitiligo
Twin Cities Naturalist, Leucistic American robin (check out the link to Hein van Grouw's article)
All About Birds: Color
Project FeederWatch, Plumage Variations: Albinism or Leucism?
Project FeederWatch, Unusual Birds, Bird Leucism
Chipper Woods Bird Observatory, Northern Cardinal-Leucistic
Picus Blog, Leucistic Red-tailed hawk
A set of pictures at flickr by gregpage1465
David Sibley's blog, Abnormal coloration in birds: Melanin reduction


  1. I once had the e-mail address of a gentleman who wanted records of red-tailed hawks that showed white. He had lots of records. The bird I photographed used a valley near here for 5 winters ... almost all white, dark eyes, a dark splotch on the back of its head, faint color in its tail, but basically bright white. I always thought of it as a partial albino, but it sounds as though I should I should be thrasing about looking for a better term.

    A very interesting post ... and great sketches to go with it.

  2. Wonderful sketches, Debbie and beautifully observed as usual.
    The sunflowers I grew for the goldfinches this summer are now dry and ripe and being devoured by the pigeons!

  3. Lovely sketches, Debbie, and fascinating observations and post! Your sketches give me a wonderful sense of one of my favorite birds. How cool to witness this!

  4. One of the symptoms of Vitiligo is the hair that grows in the affected area turns into white. Today, about 0.5 to 1 percent of the world’s population has Vitiligo.