We heard the flock of grackles in the backyard Friday morning, there must have been 50. They were squawking and carrying on and finishing off any suet and bird seed I had put out. They had been paired off and nesting until recently, and now were gathering to migrate. But among the 50 black grackles was one bird as white as snow. I went to the back yard to investigate.
When the grackle flock flew, the white bird went along. It was the same size and had the same tail and head shape. This was indeed a solid white blackbird. I had never seen that before. Then, as the bird drew near to the kitchen window, I was better able to see and identify it. It had white legs and feet, unlike the black legs and feet of the others. It also had pink eyes. It was an albino.
Hunters have always been fascinated with white deer and almost every hunter has a different opinion about these rare creatures. Some think they have bad genetics and should be eliminated. Others disagree. Native Americans believed they were magical and had special powers.
But in nature, there are two kinds of white deer or birds. One is an albino, but the other is leucistic. An albino bird or animal lacks any pigmentation. They are all white and have pink eyes. Creatures with albinism generally have poor eyesight and sometimes deformed limbs and don’t survive very well. They are also quite conspicuous, which makes them easy prey.
Albinism is a recessive genetic trait and both parents must carry the gene in order to pass it on. Neither animal may be white, but they must have some of those genes. Albino deer are rare — less than 1%. More common is a piebald or leucistic deer.
Leucistic animals lack pigment on all or parts of their hides. They can be varying in levels of white. But their eyes, noses and hooves are black. Those with white splotches are often referred to as piebald. Though the animals are white and stand out, they generally live longer than albinos. About 2% of all deer are leucistic.
In the bird world, albinism can turn a bird’s plumage pale, but there are distinct differences between albino and leucistic birds. Leucism affects only the bird’s feathers, and typically only those with melanin pigment, usually dark feathers. A leucistic bird with different colors may show some colors brightly, especially red, orange, or yellow, while feathers that should be brown or black are instead pale or white. Some leucistic birds, however, can lose all the pigment in their feathers and may appear pure white.
Albinism, on the other hand, affects all the pigments, and albino birds show no color whatsoever in their feathers. Furthermore, an albino mutation also affects the bird’s other pigments in the skin and eyes, and albino birds show pale pink or reddish eyes, legs, feet, and a pale bill. Leucistic birds, on the other hand, often have normally colored eyes, legs, feet, and bills.
So, the strange looking grackle in our yard was a true albino, not leucistic. I feel fortunate that it paid us a visit and I wish it god speed.