A Bird of a Different Color

Published on: May. 19, 2011

One of the pleasures of my job is that I get to see lots of photos of unusually colored animals that Missourians submit to us for an explanation. They include individuals with no pigments (true albinos), melanistic (all or mostly dark-colored due to excess pigment) and a variety of piebald patterns where some of the normal pigments are missing, leaving white feathers or fur.

leucistic robin on streetBiologists use the term leucistic to describe animals whose normal pigments are present but are distributed to the body in unusual patterns. A leucistic animal can have pale colors overall or can have normal colors next to pure white areas. The presence and distribution of pigments is genetically controlled, and abnormal deposition of pigments is very rare. One study of birds at feeders recorded fewer than 1,000 leucistic birds in 38 million observations.

leucistic robin in grass lawn

The leucistic American robin pictured here was observed in a neighborhood in O’Fallon, Mo., this month. It behaves like others of its species, spending much of its time in the spring hunting for earthworms in residential lawns. It makes me wonder how the other robins regard this bird that doesn’t look like them. Is it prized as a wondrous variation, like the Native Americans treated the rare albino bison? The other robins don’t seem to treat it any differently. Leucistic birds are reportedly less likely to attract mates and more likely to fall victim to predators. Those factors certainly must contribute to their rarity.

Photos by D. Baldwin of O'Fallon, Mo.

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On June 12th, 2011 at 5:11pm Pam said:

Male painted bunting spotted twice behind William Woods University on Wildwood Dr. in Jefferson City... once the 3rd week of May and once the 1st week of June, 2011, between 10:00-11:00 a.m.

On June 10th, 2011 at 10:44pm Blanco kitchen sinks said:

Amazing blog! nice information again.You always share some good pictures with us, its great to know more about the different species, thanks for sharing...

On June 2nd, 2011 at 3:38am Marden said:

That's not just the best asnewr. It's the bestest answer!

On May 28th, 2011 at 3:43pm Scott said:

The painted bunting has made it's return to steak n shake in Jefferson City.

On May 24th, 2011 at 12:16am Rachelle said:

You always share some good pictures with us, its great to know more about the different species, thanks for sharing...

On May 23rd, 2011 at 7:45am smitht2 said:

Karen:  See the link in the story, on the word "leucistic," for a discussion of the changing application of the word to include birds with white areas lacking pigment. I am following the Cornell University's definition.

On May 20th, 2011 at 7:35pm Karen said:

According to the Oxford dictionary the definition of leucistic is "having all whitish fur, plumage or skin due to a lack of pigment." The origin of the word is "LEUCO" which means white. Therefore the bird pictured in this article is a pied, not a leucistic because a leucistic animal is all white with blue or black eyes.

On May 19th, 2011 at 6:15pm Rick Byerly said:

We live in Imperial, MO where a white Robin female began to build a nest in our backyard but changed her mind and built it elsewher. We still see her now and then by the feeder. It would have been cool if she would have stayed
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