Thursday, December 20, 2007

Snowflake the Junco

Thursday, December 20, 2007
Looking out my home office window about a month ago, I spied with my little eye, a white spot on the green-turning-brown lawn. It was out under the pines where corn and mixed seed are scattered.

At first I thought it was a piece of tissue.

Then the white spot moved.

I got binocs on it and saw that it was a female dark-eyed junco but that it was leucistic, what most of us might mistakenly call "partially albino." There are no partial albinos. [Science Chimp chimes in: "That's like saying She's partially pregnant"] You either are or you aren't. Same thing is true with albinism.

Actual albino birds completely lack pigment. Their eyes are red. Their fleshy parts are pink. Their feathers are all white. They normally do not survive long for a variety of reasons (poor eyesight, difficulty of NOT getting noticed by predators, other genetic problems).

This bird intrigued me. It is leucistic--partially lacking in pigment. It's not only noticeable and beautiful, it's quite willing to come in to our front stoop feeder, to our studio feeders, and basically hang around the yard all day long.

I am calling this whitish dark-eyed junco Snowflake (awwwww!). She is easy to spot among the 50 or so juncos spending this winter with us.

I have yet to get a really good photo of her this year. I'm wondering if it's the same leucistic female we had here last year. This year's model is noticeably whiter. But what are the chances of two different leucistic female dark-eyed juncos showing up at our farm on consecutive years?

I have a lot of questions about this...
Does the amount of leucism change from molt to molt? Does it come on stronger with age?

Is this the same bird?
Well, I'd like to get your opinion on this.

Here is the December 2007 bird:

December 2007. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

And here is the December 2006 bird:December 2006.

Viewed from different angles, it's easy to see that the leucism is not uniform—she has one side that's whiter than the other.

Birds with noticeable physical traits (white feathers, abnormally long bills, a drooping wing) are known as marker birds. You can spot them as individuals.

I posted about our other marker birds last December here in BOTB, including several images of a whitish junco.

I'll keep you posted on her whereabouts. I just hope the sharp-shinned hawk does not prefer white meat...

Snowflake the leucistic junco.


On December 21, 2007 at 4:19 AM Marvin said...

My guess is that it's the same bird. This source says that leucism is caused by a disorder of pigment transfer and that white feathers occur at random anywhere in the plumage.

Regardless, thanks for the photos of Snowflake and I hope she doesn't pay a price for standing out in the crowd.

On December 21, 2007 at 6:39 AM Jayne said...

Cool! We once had a leucistic Titmouse. It was fully white, but with dark eyes. Hope Snowflake stays safe... preferably camped out in the snow.

On December 21, 2007 at 11:38 AM Michelle said...

I'm no expert, but if you study the whitest spots from 2006 and compare to this year, it sure looks like they match.

On December 21, 2007 at 12:31 PM Rondeau Ric said...

Nice find. i always enjoy your and Julies blogs. I learn things.
Be well.

On December 21, 2007 at 5:14 PM Julie Zickefoose said...

I think it's the same bird, not only because the white distribution patterns, normal tail coloration, and distinctive striped brown back are consistent, but because this year Snowflake jumped in the suet dough feeder like she'd been doing it all her life!

On December 21, 2007 at 10:32 PM Trixie said...

Interesting, interesting. I would bet it was the same bird, simply due to odds.

On December 21, 2007 at 11:56 PM said...

Poor Junco . . . I hope someone told the cardinal that it isn’t his fault he’s a mutant! BTW: We have had a Grackle with the same white tail feathers show up each spring for the past 4-5 years now!

On December 22, 2007 at 3:13 AM Kathy said...

Snowflake is really pretty. I hope she is able to avoid being a hawk dinner. The last two years I've had a red winged blackbird with white feathers scattered about its back, head, chest and tail. It is pretty and really stands out in the crowd.

On December 22, 2007 at 10:42 PM Mary said...

She is very pretty and I hope she continues to be safe. Lacking the scientific knowledge, I'll back up Julie on "suet recognition".

On December 22, 2007 at 11:44 PM Susan Gets Native said...

Maybe I am missing something, but the two birds look different to me.
But like you said, what are the odds?
Leucism is fascinating to me. Isis, our leucistic red-tail is so stunning. How often do you see a white hawk with blue eyes? And why would someone shoot her?
Anyway, I wish the best for Snowflake.

On December 24, 2007 at 8:21 AM Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas, Bill!


On January 2, 2008 at 8:59 PM AndrĂ©e said...

You've taught me a lot in this post.

On February 2, 2008 at 3:48 PM Shannon McKelden said...

This comment is rather a long time after your post, but I wanted to thank you for the great info! I discovered an oddly white-patched bird in our yard this morning that I couldn't identify. After much comparison to others, I realized it was a male dark-eyed Junco, but with white feathers. Some research led me here to your great explanation of leucism! My young son and I learned something new today!


On April 28, 2008 at 3:06 PM Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for sharing the information on Snowflake. She's beautiful.

If you can stand a long blog, I’d like to share more on rare markings - Common Grackles this time.

I have only about 15 Common Grackles visiting my backyard. Three of these have white collars. The white doesn't go all the way under their throat so I guess I can't call it a neck ring. I know it's called leucism but this old Missouri hillbilly prefers to think white feathers is white feathers.

I can tell these individuals apart by the height of their white collars.

I spotted the first Grackle on 25 Mar 08. He has such a small white collar that it can be seen only when he bends his head down to the ground. I've only seen him twice and both times he was with a small group of Grackles.

I spotted the second Grackle for the first time on 1 Apr 08. He's a very large individual and his collar is very large also. I estimate the white feathers are at least 1 inch long and very obvious no matter which way he holds his head. Each time he returns, he's with two female Common Grackle. He visits my backyard about two or three times a week.

I first spotted the third Grackle on 10 Apr 08. He has a medium-sized white collar. It's larger than the first bird's collar but smaller than the second bird's collar. He's always accompanied by one or two females, never in a group. He visits almost every day and usually multiple times during the day.

Although I don't particularly like Grackles, I'm always in awe of the beautiful shiny colors of their feathers. These three with white collars are absolutely, outrageously beautiful. It looks like a master painter took three different sized paint brushes, dipped them in the purest white paint, and gently stroked their necks. There is no other white on these birds. The collars are not ragged or jagged. This is no disorder of pigment transfer. This is the Master painter at His best. At least, that's what this old hillbilly sees.

Anita, in St. Charles Missouri (across the River from St. Louis, Missouri).

On February 9, 2009 at 9:38 PM Anonymous said...

I just found this post, and am not sure how or if I can post photos. But I have had a leucistic dark eyed junco in our feeders for the last several days. Very shy compared to the usually brave flock of juncos, and seems quite at odds with most of the crowd. Very fiesty, I suspect from being picked on by others. Anyway, I was finally able to get several really nice photos of her today. If someone is interested, I can make them available to post. Just contact via email.

Thank You, Tim

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