Bird Albinism

albinism in birds

What is Bird Albinism

Bird Albinism: This is a genetic mutation that results in the lack of an enzyme essential to produce melanin. The lack of melanin means that the plumage in albinistic birds is white. Albinistic birds typically have pink or reddish eyes, flesh-colored bill, legs, and skin.

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Birds have multiple pigments other than melanin. While the absence of melanin results in a pure white plumage and pale bare parts, colors such as yellow or orange can express themselves in some albinistic individuals.

Do all Albinistic Birds look alike?

Yes, albino birds look alike because albinism implies a lack of melanin. Since the lack of melanin does not preclude other pigments’ expression, albinistic birds may differ from each other on the amount (if present) of yellow or orange colors on the body’s bare areas.

Related: A Guide to Bird Feathers

Can albinistic and leucistic birds be confused?

Very pale leucistic birds can be confused with albino birds. However, a closer look would reveal that leucistic birds have eyes, bill, legs, and other bare parts of the normal color. Albino birds have pink or reddish eyes and pale bill, and other bare parts.

A bird that has some feathers with pigment or normal color in its plumage is leucistic. By definition, albino birds have no pigment in their plumages.

Leucistic birds are often referred to as having partial albinism, which is deceptive because both aberrant plumages are the result of different mutations. There is no such a thing as partial albino. A bird referred to as a partial albino is a leucistic bird.

albino and leucistic birds
An albino Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) (Left), and a Great Thrush (Turdus fuscater) (right). 

What is the Difference Between Albinism and Leucism 

  Albinism Leucism
Mutation results in: Complete lack of melanin. Loss of pigmentation only
in feathers.
Plumage coloration: Always pure white. Vary from a washout of
the typical plumage, a
few white feathers 
to
pure white.
Color of eyes and bare parts: Eyes are pink or reddish; other bare parts are pale
without color.
Eyes, bill, and bare parts
are of the normal color.

Unlike the diverse plumage coloration in leucistic birds, albino birds are relatively uniform. Albino birds have pure white plumage and pink or reddish eyes. Some albino birds show some yellow or orange coloration on the bare parts of the face.

Read more about Bird Leucism.

albinism in birds
Adult albino raven.

Do albino birds have problems?

Albino birds have impaired vision and physiological problems, which in most cases, prevents them from reaching adult age. Albino birds kept in captivity have more chances for a longer life than those exposed to the sun and other external elements in the wild. Those that reach the adult age may face:

  • An increased risk of predation: Most birds rely on their plumage to blend in the habitat they use. Predators, particularly hawks and falcons, quickly identify a conspicuous white plumage and attempt to prey upon it more often than expected. Peregrine falcons that attacked flocks of racing pigeon targeted white or partly white pigeons for singling them out of the flock and further pursue more often than they did normal or dark-colored pigeons.
  • Plumage Deterioration: Melanin, a dark pigment, is an important structural component of a feather. The lack of melanin in a bird feather result in a plumage not as firmly cohesive as a normal plumage and feathers that wear down sooner than normal colored ones. The lack of melanin is noticeable in the bird’s primary flight feathers, which wear down sooner than normal, causing the bird to spend more energy during flight.
  • Inability to Find Suitable partners:  Albino birds are so hindered by multiple issues that they are perhaps energetically unable even to attempt breeding if they reach the adult age. In general, plumage plays an important role in courtship display. It is speculated that birds of different plumage may have difficulties attracting a mate, but this has not been tested.

Related: Bird Plumage: Patterns & Functions

How to Identify an albino Bird?

Seeing a pure white bird in a habitat where such plumages are unexpected will call an observer’s attention. At first, such a conspicuous plumage may bring confusion, but after a closer look, you will likely be able to arrive at the bird’s identity.

Albino birds are rare, but identifying them is relatively easy.

1)  See the birds that associate with the albino bird. Since the bill, eyes, and legs color of the albino bird are pink and pale, these cannot be used as a reference. Instead, rely on the shape, size, behavior, and habitat use. If the albino bird looks and behaves like the others, it is likely an albino individual of that same species.

2) If the albino bird is alone, use the same elements as above and think of a species that occur in the area that fit those elements.  These clues should give you an idea of which species the albino bird is likely to be.

Conclusion:

Albinism in birds is rare, and few individuals live long enough to adult age. Albino birds show a pure white plumage, pink or reddish eyes, pale bill, and pale bare parts. Carotenoids and organic pigments from plants in the birds’ diets may enter some feathers, giving albino birds slight coloration.

Birders rely on plumage as the primary clue for bird identification. An atypical bird plumage is likely to cause temporary confusion. Still, taking the hints suggested here, it is likely that you will be able to arrive at the correct bird identification.


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