Leucism

by Charlie Grindstaff

My husband and I were driving just southeast of Maypearl on the morning of March 9th when he saw a large white and reddish brown bird in a field. We stopped but even with a field guide we couldn’t figure out what it was. There was a dead skunk and turkey vultures in the field. Unfortunately it wouldn’t come within good camera range. So we called a birder friend who lives in Maypearl. She and her husband drove out and met us. Using her binoculars she was able to identify it as a leucistic turkey vulture (Cathartes aura).

Leucism is a very unusual condition whereby the pigmentation cells in an animal or bird fail to develop properly. In birds, leucism affects only the bird’s feathers, this means they do not have the normal, classic plumage colors listed in field guides. They may have white patches where the bird should not have any, or their overall plumage may look pale or bleached out.

While this can prove challenging for birders trying to identify the species by its plumage, it can cause major problems for the bird.  The lighter plumage may rob the bird of its normal protective camouflage and make it more vulnerable to predators.  If plumage colors play an important role in courtship rituals, the leucistic bird may be unable to find a mate. White feathers reflect heat more efficiently, which can be fatal for birds that rely on sunbathing and solar radiation for heat.

Albinism is a different condition, which affects all the pigments, and albino birds show no color whatsoever in their feathers. It also affects the pigments in the skin and eyes. Albinos have pale pink eyes, legs, feet and a pale bill. Leucistic birds usually have normally colored eyes, legs, feet and bills.

Keep your eyes open, you may see something unusual.

Leucistic Mockingbird
Leucistic Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)
6/2012 C.Gritzmaker
Leucistic Turkey Vulture
Leucistic Turkey Vulture
3/9/13 near Maypearl
C. Grindstaff

Do you think nature should be part of our everyday life, not just somewhere to go on the weekends?  You are invited to attend our free, open-to-the-public, monthly program on the fourth Monday of the month at 7 pm at the Red Oak Library, 200 Lakeview Pkwy, Red Oak, TX.  Would you like to join an active citizen corps of knowledgeable volunteers to provide education, outreach and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within our communities?  ITMN will conduct spring training Tuesday evenings 6-9 p.m. at First United Methodist Church from April 2 – May 28.  For more information on the Indian Trail Master Naturalist Chapter, contact the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service at 972-825-5175 or visit our website:   https://txmn.org/indiantrail/.

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