A WHITER SHADE OF TAIL? LEUCISM IN BIRDS


Leucistic Turkey Vulture, Florida Keys 2 (Amy at PoweredbyBirds

Leucistic Turkey Vulture (Amy Evenstad, PoweredByBirds.com)

A WHITER SHADE OF TAIL? LEUCISM IN BIRDS

And not just the tail*. Other parts of a bird. Sometimes most of a bird. More rarely, an entire bird. Whichever, a bird affected by leucism stands out from the crowd – out of the ordinary and therefore startling to the eye. I’d be very surprised if the fine turkey vulture in the header image didn’t make you look twice – maybe even to check if some devious photoshop trickery had been at work. Yet it’s just a normal TUVU in the Florida Keys, living a normal vulturine life.

kcac TUVU JPG

LEUCISTIC DISCOVERY ON ABACO

A leucistic Western Spindalis discovered on Abaco by birder Keith KempWestern Spindalis (leucistic) Abaco 2 (Keith Kemp)Western Spindalis (leucistic) Abaco 1 (Keith Kemp)

For comparison – the real dealWestern Spindalis BH IMG_1711 copy

LEUCISM? EXCUSE ME, AND THAT IS?

First, what it is not. It is not albinism, which results from diminished or lost melanin production that affects pigmentation. One characteristic of the condition is the tendency to pink eyes, which of course is seen in humans as well as animals and birds. Meet the perfect example…

Albino Rabbit (pinterest)

WELL, WHAT IS IT THEN?

Put simply, melanin is only one of many ingredients of pigmentation. Leucism is caused through pigment loss involving many types of pigment, not just melanin. In birds this results in unnaturally light or white colouring of feathers that may be partial or entire. The eyes of a bird with leucism are unaffected. At one extreme, if all pigment cells fail, a white bird will result; at the other extreme, pigment defects cause patches and blotches of pale or white on the bird, often called a ‘pied’ effect. The condition can be inherited.

A mallard on Abaco. The species is known for its wide colour variations in both sexes. Sometimes the variations go beyond the usual range: this is a leucistic bird

Leucistic Mallard, Abaco (Nina Henry)

A leucistic common gallinule (moorhen) on AbacoLeucistic Common Gallinule (Moorhen) Abaco (Tony Hepburn)

Leucistic rock pigeon800px-Leucistic_Rock_Pigeon

BAHAMA (WHITE-CHEEKED) PINTAIL: A PIGMENT PUZZLE

I have found more examples of leucism in the ‘Bahama Duck’ than any other local species on Abaco. But there is also scope for confusion. First, here’s a pintail that is undoubtedly leucistic – note that the eyes and beak are unaffected by pigmentation deficiency:

Leucistic Bahama Pintail (Jim Edmonson)

But not all pale variants can be so confidently labelled. In the first picture, bottom right, there is an obviously an ‘odd’ pintail, silvery rather than ruddy brown like the rest of them (and yes, I do see the coot in the pack as well…). The second photo shows the same bird on dry land.

White-cheeked (Bahama) Pintail, Abaco 1 (Keith Salvesen) White-cheeked (Bahama) Pintail, Abaco 2 (Keith Salvesen)

This is known as a ‘silver pintail’. These are said to be a leuchistic variant, and they are stocked by poultry dealers as ornamental ducks at a higher price than the much-loved standard brown version. However this bird clearly retains the essential markings of a normal pintail that you might expect to be absent (at least in patches) in the ‘true’ leucistic bird. I’ve seen it described as a ‘gray morph’. I wonder where the line is drawn between a noticeable colour variant or morph in a bird; and an obviously pigment-abnormal, leucistic bird where the incidence and extent of the condition seems to be random.

A fine example of a ‘pied’ American Robin, an occasional visiting species on Abaco

Leucistic American Robin (Amy @ PoweredbyBirds)

Leucistic American Robin (Amy Evenstad, PoweredByBirds.com)

PIPING PLOVERS CAN BE LEUCISTIC TOO

PIPL are one of my bird species preoccupations, but until I checked them out I hadn’t imagined what a leucistic one would look like, or whether they had ever been recorded. I now have the answer… Leucistic Piping Plover (Audubon Alliance)leucistic plover 2leucistic plover 3

These photos of a leucistic female were featured by Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut. They were taken by Jim Panaccione, a Biological Science Technician at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newburyport, Massachusetts. I hope he won’t mind their illustrative use here… Despite the theory that leucistic birds may find it hard to find a mate – and might even be attacked by its own species – this pair successfully nested.

OPTIONAL MUSICAL & CULTURAL DIGRESSION

A WHITER SHADE OF PALE

*Obviously, it had to be ‘tail’ in the title to justify one of my clunky ‘jokes’ and an accompanying musical diversion. That’s just the way it is, I’m afraid. Bach’s well-known descending chord sequence of was of course shamelessly ripped off by ingeniously adapted by Procol Harum for ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, their first single in 1967. Relive a Summer of Love right here and now. 

Any fret-tweakers might like to see the sheet music of Bach’s Air for guitar – you could even play it on Air Guitar – which is relatively easy, being in C major. 

Air on a G String - J S Bach - Guitar Tab JPG

‘BACH IN A MINUET’

The best known commercial use of the tune was in the famed series of adverts that equated a mild cigar called Hamlet with happiness, accompanied by an excerpt from a jazzy version of Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’. Here is one of the best – and possibly the only advert to my knowledge to feature not one, but two excellent Sir Walter Raleigh jokes.

Credits: thanks to Amy Evenstad (PoweredByBirds.com) for use permission for her wonderful TUVU & AMRO photos; other photos by Keith Kemp & Bruce Hallett (Spindalis); Pinterest (rabbit); Nina Henry (mallard); Tony Hepburn (moorhen); Wiki (pigeon); Jim Edmonson (leucistic pintail); Keith Salvesen (silver pintail); Jim Panaccione / Audubon (piping plovers); Procol Harum, esp. Robin Trower for building a great career round being ‘reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’; J.S. Bach for a nagging tune; Hamlet cigars for ingenuity & making me laugh

ABACO BIRDS YOU CAN SEE IN THE BIG APPLE…


Red-tailed Hawk Central Park NYC

ABACO BIRDS YOU CAN SEE IN THE BIG APPLE…

Big Apple, here we come! Mrs RH has business there next week. Sometimes, if I have behaved particularly well for an extended period – 2 years on average – I am invited to go along on her US trips. Providing I can grab a cheap fare as well. Well, sorted! NYC is my absolutely favourite capital city. Along with Marsh Harbour, obvs. And maybe Paris. Not London, we live there. Too close to home. 

Northern Mockingbird, High Line, NYCNorthern Mockingbird NYC High Line

I never go shopping, but I have specific must-dos. Route 66 on 9th for the best breakfast ever. Walking the wonderful new High Line park, extended since we were last there. The Staten Island Ferry out and straight back for the best free ‘Manhattan view plus water ride’ experience. The Tramway cable car to Roosevelt Island to visit the beautifully restored Blackwell Farmhouse which dates from 1796 and is arguably NYC’s oldest surviving residential building (not many people know this). Then a brisk walk to Lighthouse Point for a winter picnic. This is where, one day, I plan to catch a fish – any fish – on the fly in the East River. I’ve debated packing a small travel rod & reel this time but it is not an ideal time of year, frankly, and I don’t want to set myself up for failure in what will anyway be a hard task…

A Herring Gull provides irrefutable proof that there is piscine life in the East River even in winter
Life in the East River NY

Mallards in Central park: a male and a LEUCISTIC femaleMallard (m) NYC Central Park Mallard (f) - leucistic NYC Central Park

And to people’s complete bemusement (sample comment: “Are you quite mad?”) I go birding. NYC is a great place for it, being on a major migration flyway. Central Park is fantastic, especially the Ramble, the Reservoir, and the lesser known wild areas at the top end – the Loch, the Ravine, Harlem Meer. Prospect Park Brooklyn is another great place, with wild woodland and lakes for many water bird species. There’s a wildlife refuge at Jamaica Bay which looks worth exploring too, though it’s a bit of a trek. Anyway, here are a few Big Apple birds that are found on – or at least recorded for – Abaco (some very rarely, it has to be said).

Ring-billed and Herring Gulls on the Staten Island FerryRing-billed Gull NYC Staten Island Ferry Ring-billed Gull NYC 2 Staten Island FerryHerring Gull NYC 2 Staten Island FerryHerring Gull NYC Staten Island Ferry

Male & female Hooded Mergansers on the JKO Reservoir, Central ParkHooded Merganser (m) NYC JKO Reservoir Hooded Merganser (f) 2 NYC JKO Reservoir

Male House Sparrow (Central Park) & female (Prospect Park, Brooklyn)House Sparrow NYC Central Park House Sparrow (f) NYC Prospect Park

Rock Pigeon, Central ParkRock Pigeon NYC

Eurasian Starling (High Line Park)Starling NYC High Line Park

Canada Goose on ice (Prospect Park, Brooklyn)Canada Goose NYC Prospect Park

American Robin (Prospect Park, Brooklyn)American Robin NYC Prospect Park

Poor photo of a Coot (Harlem Meer, Central park)Coot NYC Central Park Harlem Meer

Ultra-shy Red-winged Blackbird (Prospect Park, Brooklyn)Red-winged Blackbird NYC Prospect ParkI can only get away with crap photos like this because it’s my blog & your decision to put up with it

Bufflehead, JKO Reservoir Central ParkBufflehead NYC JKO Reservoir Central ParkA bird recorded once or perhaps twice for Abaco in the last 60 years. I have better photos than this, but this one best illustrates your chance of seeing one on Abaco – vanishing…

Hairy** Red-bellied Woodpecker (The Ramble, Central Park)Hairy Woodpecker NYC The Ramble Central Park

Red-tailed Hawk NYC (Prospect Park Brooklyn)Red-tailed Hawk NYC Prospect Park BrooklynThe RTH header image was taken in the Ramble, Central Park

** As Woody Bracey has been quick to point out, this is in fact a Red-bellied Woodpecker, not a Hairy Woodpecker. Unlike the HWP, the RBW is not recorded for Abaco. HOWEVER I do have a HWP photo from Central Park somewhere, and if I can find it I’ll substitute it and make it right!

All photos, good, bad and indifferent: The Author

A WHITER SHADE OF TAIL? LEUCISM IN BIRDS


Leucistic Turkey Vulture, Florida Keys 2 (Amy at PoweredbyBirds

Leucistic Turkey Vulture (Amy Evenstad, PoweredByBirds.com)

A WHITER SHADE OF TAIL? LEUCISM IN BIRDS

And not just the tail*. Other parts of a bird. Sometimes most of a bird. More rarely, an entire bird. Whichever, a bird affected by leucism stands out from the crowd – out of the ordinary and therefore startling to the eye. I’d be very surprised if the fine turkey vulture in the header image didn’t make you look twice – maybe even to check if some devious Rolling Harbour P/shop trickery had been at work. Yet it’s just a TV / TUVU in the Florida Keys, living a normal vulturine life.

kcac TUVU JPG

ABACO’S LATEST LEUCISTIC DISCOVERY

A leucistic Western Spindalis found within the past week on Abaco by Keith KempWestern Spindalis (leucistic) Abaco 2 (Keith Kemp)Western Spindalis (leucistic) Abaco 1 (Keith Kemp)

For comparison – the real dealWestern Spindalis BH IMG_1711 copy

LEUCISM? EXCUSE ME, AND THAT IS?

First, what it is not. It is not albinism, which results from diminished or lost melanin production that affects pigmentation. One characteristic of the condition is the tendency to pink eyes, which of course is seen in humans as well as animals and birds. Here’s an obvious yet totes adorbs illustration:

Albino Rabbit (pinterest)

Albino Fwuffy Bwunny Wabbit

WELL, WHAT IS IT THEN?

Put simply, melanin is only one of many ingredients of pigmentation. Leucism is caused through pigment loss involving many types of pigment, not just melanin. In birds this results in unnaturally light or white colouring of feathers that may be partial or entire. The eyes of a bird with leucism are unaffected. At one extreme, if all pigment cells fail, a white bird will result; at the other extreme, pigment defects cause patches and blotches of pale or white on the bird, often called a ‘pied’ effect. The condition can be inherited.

A mallard on Abaco. The species is known for its wide colour variations in both sexes. Sometimes the variations go beyond the usual range. This is a leucistic bird – though not, as it appears, one-legged.Leucistic Mallard, Abaco (Nina Henry)

A leucistic common gallinule (moorhen) on AbacoLeucistic Common Gallinule (Moorhen) Abaco (Tony Hepburn)

Leucistic rock pigeon800px-Leucistic_Rock_Pigeon

BAHAMA (WHITE-CHEEKED) PINTAIL: A PIGMENT PUZZLE

I have found more examples of leucism in the ‘Bahama Duck’ than any other local species. But there is also scope for confusion. First, here’s a pintail that is undoubtedly leucistic – note that the eyes and beak are unaffected by pigmentation deficiency:

Leucistic Bahama Pintail (Jim Edmonson)

But not all pale variants can be so confidently labelled. Here are two photos I took at the well-known birding pond on the Treasure Cay golf course [ask for permission at the club house first – it may, for example, be a match day]. In the first, bottom right, there is plainly an ‘odd’ pintail, silvery rather than ruddy brown (yes, I do see the coot in the pack as well). The second photo shows the same bird on dry land.

White-cheeked (Bahama) Pintail, Abaco 1 (Keith Salvesen) White-cheeked (Bahama) Pintail, Abaco 2 (Keith Salvesen)

This is known as a ‘silver pintail’. These are said to be a leuchistic variant, and they are stocked by poultry dealers as ornamental ducks at a higher price than the standard brown (and much-loved) version. However this bird clearly retains the essential markings of a normal pintail that you might expect to be absent (at least in patches) in the ‘true’ leucistic bird. I’ve seen it describes as a ‘gray morph’. I wonder where the line is drawn between a marked colour variant or morph in a bird; and an obviously pigment-abnormal, leucistic bird where incidence and extent of the condition seems to be random.

A fine example of a ‘pied’ American Robin, an occasional visiting species on Abaco

Leucistic American Robin (Amy @ PoweredbyBirds)

Leucistic American Robin (Amy Evenstad, PoweredByBirds.com)

PIPING PLOVERS CAN BE LEUCISTIC TOO

PIPL are my current bird preoccupation, but until I checked them out, I hadn’t imagined what a leucistic one would look like. I now have the answer… Leucistic Piping Plover (Audubon Alliance)leucistic plover 2leucistic plover 3

These photos of a leucistic female were featured by Audubon Alliance for Coastal Waterbirds, Audubon Connecticut. They were taken by Jim Panaccione, a Biological Science Technician at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newburyport, Massachusetts in 2012. I hope he won’t mind their illustrative use here… Despite the theory that leucistic birds may find it hard to find a mate – and might even be attacked by its own species – this pair successfully nested in 2012.

I’d be interested to hear about other leucistic birds found on Abaco. Please add a comment or email me. Or upload a photo to the Rolling Harbour FB page if you like.

OPTIONAL MUSICAL & CULTURAL DIGRESSION

A WHITER SHADE OF PALE

*Obviously, it had to be ‘tail’ in the title to justify one of my clunky ‘jokes’ and an accompanying musical diversion. That’s just the way it is, I’m afraid. Bach’s well-known descending chord sequence of was of course shamelessly ripped off by ingeniously adapted by Procol Harum for ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, their first single in 1967. Relive a Summer of Love right here and now. Or for a change try a different version by Annie Lennox

Any fret-tweakers might like to see the sheet music of Bach’s Air for guitar – you could even play it on Air Guitar – which is relatively easy, being in C major. 

Air on a G String - J S Bach - Guitar Tab JPG

The best known commercial use of the tune was in the famed series of adverts that  equated a mild cigar called Hamlet with happiness, accompanied by an excerpt from a jazzy version of Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’. Here is one of the best – and possibly the only advert to my knowledge to feature not one, but two excellent Sir Walter Raleigh jokes. But the music never gets past the first familiar chord…

Credits: thanks to Amy Evenstad (PoweredByBirds.com) for use permission for her wonderful TUVU & AMRO photos; other photos by Keith Kemp & Bruce Hallett (Spindalis); Pinterest (rabbit); Nina Henry (mallard); Tony Hepburn (moorhen); Wiki (pigeon); Jim Edmonson (leucistic pintail); RH (silver pintail); Jim Panaccione / Audubon (piping plovers); Tip o’ the Hat to Birdorable (TV inset in my ‘keep calm’ mock-up): Procol Harum, esp. Robin Trower for building a great career ‘reminiscent’ of Hendrix; J.S. Bach for a nagging tune; Hamlet cigars for ingenuity & making me laugh