Rare White Bird Sighting – Leucism in Sparrows

White_Sparrow

White Sparrow

I say white, but not quite, really rare no, but very unusual I declare… and also I say, expect the unexpected when bird watching. So what is this bird and how is it that it is almost completely white?

What a cool cucumber you are! After all, your color signals, “Here I am – not what I am.” It took a bit to positively identify you, but forwarding a few photos to fellow blogger, Janet from The Queen of Seaford help put you in the column, ‘found and identified’ as we jointly searched you out.

Did you know white sparrows signal good luck, so I have read?  I hope this little cutie is white enough with that pink beak, peachy legs and touch of gold. I could use a bit of luck, but couldn’t we all though?

Superstition aside, the luck is in finding one.  Leucistic birds that are completely white are very rare. Dark eyes keep her from being an albino. Most know albinism, but have never heard of leucism. “Leucism comes in two main varieties — paleness, an equal reduction of melanin in all feathers; and pied, an absence of melanin in some feathers creating white patches.” (Cornell)

sparrow

One of the pale sparrows in flight – there were a few here this past summer. Only the golden one remained through winter.

Janet has explained the findings more fully, listed the particulars on this bird and also clarified what caused the coloration.

It all started as I had asked her if she could identify a bird I was having difficulty identifying. I sent her a few images to help her make an ID, one of which is below. This was taken recently.

Golden_Bird_Front

I felt since she put a lot of time into trying to identify this bird, that she should be the one to post the images of the golden sparrow, also leucistic, on her site and explain the findings. She will have a very well searched post on the web since I am sure others have gone through the same time-consuming experience trying to identify such an unusual character.

Golden_Sparrow_2-9-13

Blonde Sparrow or Golden Sparrow, either way, a beautiful, leucistic bird.

What I found out from my research was most people run into this problem because the birds are not in any bird ID books having such uncustomary coloration. They look like birds we all know, but the odd coloration keeps casual researchers in the dark, even on common birds we see daily. There are other ways birds can be visually and genetically different. Here is another site by Cornell on Unusual Birds.

I was certain at first it was a sparrow until no golden ones could be found in a Google search. Janet added more keywords and had luck finding a bird very similar in appearance, but still not identifying why the sparrow was of such coloration.

So the search deepened and led in a most surprising and interesting direction. Things fell into place with the help of a few experts.

I contacted both Cornell and the regional Audubon Society. Naturalist, Mark Carra phoned me from the Buffalo Audubon Society on the golden bird images I forwarded to him. I sent the white sparrow images to Cornell. Oddly, Mark was very familiar with seeing leucism in various bird species, but did not offer much more information than that which is printed on Cornell’s site.

White_Sparrow-3

The white sparrow is mother to at least two young sparrows that I am sure. I suspect she is also the mother of the much cuter golden-colored sparrow I sent to Janet and you see in this post. I do regret not getting better photos of the white bird, but I was not around for much of the summer.

Mark Carra was surprised that I had a mated pair here in Niagara Falls. They often don’t reach breeding age or have luck attracting a mate. I never saw the male that I am aware.

White_Sparrow_Feeding_Young

The white sparrow has one regular house sparrow offspring which she is feeding above, and one you will see below that is gray-white. Dingy white would be a more appropriate description, but hey, no baby is ugly right? No matter how scraggly looking.

White_Sparrow-14

Leucism is an unusual trait, but not necessarily rare. The degree of unusual is determined by the completeness of white feathers.

Here is what the FeederWatch representative said about my photos,”Thank you for sending photos to Project FeederWatch. We will add them to the Lab’s collection. We may use your images on our website or in our publications.” I have yet to send the golden sparrow to FeederWatch, but will for bird count days, since it is still feeding in my yard.

White_Sparrow-5

Mom has a bit of the golden color too, but not as pronounced as the other bird. Plus her tail and wing tips are much whiter.

white_sparrow-6

This is Dingy. He has a grayish brown appearance, more akin to a regular sparrow coloration. Plus his feathers are not smooth like the other pale birds. He looks disheveled.

White_Sparrow=12

White_Sparrow-7 In this image you see how gray he really is in comparison to the other pale sparrows in this post. He also does not seem to interact with the other young birds at the feeder or in the flock.

White_Sparrow-15 Dingy again.

Golden_Sparrow_1

Golden Sparrow

Our golden Sparrow was seen February 9, 2013. I may do a post on this bird, not so much to add to Janet’s post, just because I have so many images of this bird. It is a resident in my yard, living in the tall Juniper. To see more of this bird today, and also get information on its coloration, see Janet’s post.

White_Sparrow-11

I have no clue how many offspring mom had, but I am assuming the golden-colored one I sent for ID is also part of the brood. I just know, there were some odd birds in my backyard.

About these ads

About Donna Brok

Love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
This entry was posted in Birds, garden and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

64 Responses to Rare White Bird Sighting – Leucism in Sparrows

  1. Oh, that’s a beautifully crowded backyard!!!
    Happy Valentine’s, Donna! :-)

  2. A.M.B. says:

    A white sparrow used to visit our feeders quite often last year. I haven’t seen her in a little while, but I wonder if she’ll show up while we’re counting birds this weekend. My kids are so excited about the GBBC! Thanks for this post on a very interesting topic and for the lovely pictures!

    • I bet the kids are excited for GBBC. I think this is the first time it is worldwide too. I saw that they have posted estimating instructions for birds that visit, so it does not have to be an accurate count, making it easier to participate.

  3. What an interesting sighting! It is fascinating that mom survived and had offspring to boot! I’ve never heard of such a bird and only seen albinos in zoos. Makes you wonder if putting feeders out helps these birds survive; who may otherwise have more difficulties left to natures devises.

    • I have a post up next on feeding backyard birds, the pros and cons, and I agree with you. It really is very likely that the 65 million of us feeding (in the US according to Cornell and Kaynee) are enabling the survival of these bird oddities. I have noticed at the winter feeder, the gold sparrow is much more diligent about locating food quickly. She also is very wary and is the first back to the tree. I wonder how long she will be here though! She is not very sociable with the other sparrows and finches, and keeps them at a distance when possible.

  4. Christy says:

    Oh Donna…what a wonderful post!! I’ve never seen a bird with leucism. How lucky you are to have them in the yard!! Thanks for the great pictures and for teaching me something new!

    • I was not home much this summer and never got a sense on how many were actually here. I also never knew if I was seeing the same or different birds. Had the mother not been feeding the young, I would not have known that either. I am keeping an eye on the gold one to see if it finds a mate and has young, also if the mother returns in spring.

  5. I just love the pictures. I guess due to the leucism they are more prone to predation. They reall stick out from the crowd. We don’t get the golden sparrow in the uk. I love listening to their roosting sites, huddled together and chattering away. It just reminds me of summer.

  6. I love that little golden bird! So charming and somehow unassumingly pretty.
    In my garden the birds seem terribly conservative by comparison, each having the colours they are supposed to have, but then I’m not much of an ornithologist so I just enjoy them as they are.

    (My parents had a blue-spotted dog once, though. However, that was soon found to be linked to the disappearence of several pens, the remains of which were eventually found in the dog bed… The spots took 3 months to disappear completely.)

    • Oh, ha ha. I too came home from work to a glowingly blue black Lab. My dog was kept in the laundry room in the basement, which also was a workshop. He was a chewer big time (steel belt radial tires!!!!).

      One time he chewed himself right through the drywall thinking he was escaping, when all he did was end up in the coat closet the next space over.

      I came home opened the door and no dog. But when I opened the door, I also opened it to block his escape route. Since this dog never barked or made noise, I was standing there pondering his escape for the longest time, until I shut the door behind me and saw him cowering in the dark closet through his largely chewed opening.

      How he got blue was by chewing open blue line-marking chalk. But to make matters worse, I had three dogs at the time sharing the room, one being a white toy poodle – scratch that, a blue toy poodle that stayed blue for a very long time. The whole room was blue too. I was really mad at him, even worse than when he chewed the tires and my kitchen cabinets.

  7. Very interesting post. I hadn’t realized sparrows could have this kind of coloration. By the way, I love sorengelmanriis’s story about the dog with the blue spots!

  8. It is possible a hybrid house finch with white Java rice bird. They are all finch family.

    • I have to find out who is the sparrow police in the blogging world. I keep reading that “all sparrows are finches” by one commenter who keeps printing this every time he sees an image on a post. I think this is not true. They are in different Families, but share the same Order: PASSERIFORMES. FAMILY: FRINGILLIDAE – House Finches : FAMILY: PASSERIDAE – House Sparrows.

      Am I wrong on this? Or is this guy right by some new classification on these birds?

      Here is how Cornell differentiates them.

      “House Finches,Haemorhous mexicanus , have blurry grayish streaking on the belly and flanks, unlike either Cassin’s Finch or Purple Finches. Female House Finches have a plainer brown head, where female Purple Finches are more strikingly brown and white. Female House Sparrows have light-brown stripes on the back and are unstreaked on the chest and belly. Bill shape is distinctive for House Finches: it’s fairly blunt, and rounded, without a sharp tip. Purple and Cassin’s finches both have longer, less rounded bills. Pine Siskins are even more streaky than female House Finches, with yellow patches in the wings and a thinner, more pointed bill. Female House Sparrows, Passer domesticus, are warmer brown above and don’t have streaked underparts.”
      From http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/house_finch/id

  9. HolleyGarden says:

    I hope they will all be fine, and be able to mate and carry on that beautiful golden coloring. I like it! Of course, I wonder if the coloring may become darker with each generation, as it obviously did with the whiter mom and her golden offspring.

    • I too would love to see sparrows of this color. It hangs out with a flock of sparrows so I guess I will see if it lives through to spring and finds a mate. I too wondered if the coloration changes and it is obvious it does. In summer, as a juvenile, it was much lighter, yet still obviously golden. If it sticks around, I will document a color change if it indeed has one.

      That was a question I had for the experts I contacted, since Dingy was not all that appealing of a bird. I was wondering if he would get more white with time. None of the experts could answer that question. In fact, none could answer more than was printed on Cornell’s multiple sites on this condition.

  10. Fascinating! I have never seen either the white or golden variation of this bird.

    • It is unlikely you ever will since fewer than 1000 birds in 5.5 million reported to FeederWatch were leucistic. That includes all variation, even only a few white feathers in the 1000 that most birds have. I knew when I saw the white bird, it was a very special bird.

  11. b-a-g says:

    The golden bird looks like it has been touched by Midas. I’m sure it will bring you luck.

    • Thanks, I hope so too. The golden bird is far prettier than the white one. I have seen a white one that lives in the UK that is very white and very rare. It is much prettier in shape and non-color than the female that showed up here.

  12. Helene says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post as I have never heard about leucism before. I am quite new to bird feeding and bird watching, learning new things every week and I am yet to take a successful photo of any bird except the wood pigeons in my garden – which kind of doesn’t count as they are so used to me that they don’t even flinch when I go close to them with my camera.
    Loved the golden sparrow!

    • Doves are one of my favorite birds to photograph. They are similar to your pigeon if I remember from seeing your photographs. I photographed doves in St. Lucia that were much prettier than the ones here. They have a lot of pink in them.

  13. lucindalines says:

    How beautiful. It always makes me wonder what nature is trying to tell us when we find something that is so different.

  14. Phil Lanoue says:

    Fantastic photos of this amazing (and quite rare to me) bird! Lucky you to have seen and photgraphed this cutie!

  15. catharinehoward says:

    Sparrows here are becoming decidely rare. …….let alone white ones.

  16. This is such an amazing find, and how fortunate you are to have her visit for so long. A truly unique bird that you’ve captured so beautifully. Thanks for sharing!

  17. I’m terrible at identifying birds–how nice that Janet helped you ID it. You have some wonderful captures, as always, Donna!

    • It took us much longer than I would have ever expected. Had either of us known of this condition, it would have been a fast ID. I contacted friends at Cornell, but could not get a hold of an ornithologist at this time of year. With Bird Count, all are very busy. I was most interested in questions they did not post on their site. I did get a FeederWatch rep email me though, but she was a Project Assistant, so I did not write her back. I assumed her duties were more clerical and office related.

  18. newvoice says:

    Wow – what a rare sight! What a lovely colouring. Nice one!

  19. Patty says:

    This is a first. I have never seen a white bird that was not supposed to be white, and I have never heard of Leucism. You went to a lot of trouble to understand what it was you were seeing, thanks!

    • It was new to me too, Patty, and to Janet. There is a pied doe at the farm and I have seen pied horses (paint or pinto) but never made the connection to it in birds. I would have if the bird was blotched in white, but none of the three were. I also did not realize that I had the feeding photos until I looked back. This let me know that the white bird was the mother of a regularly colored sparrow, hence that she was a sparrow too. I was really lucky to have a family of these odd birds.

  20. You covered this subject so well. It was fun being part of the search and discovery.

  21. beautifully done…

  22. aberdeen gardening says:

    Donna, we have had a common blackbird with a white head and neck, but, no, I have never seen a white Sparrow. My first thought was albino but I did expect the pink eyes, never heard of Leucism, I guess its a condition that would be more welcomed than albino regardless of species. The golden sparrow is cuter though. Very interesting subject, you don’t half come up with them.

    • I am not sure it makes a difference to the prospective mates of these birds whether albino or leucistic. I learned that they find it difficult to attract mates since they are different. The pied ones are really beautiful, like your common blackbird with the white head. In the UK there is a very beautiful white sparrow that was in The Daily Mail some time back.

  23. Pearl says:

    I never heard of Leucism either. That gold one is pretty but I’m just curious. Is it a house sparrow?
    My bird book lists house sparrows (HOSP) as weaver finches and they are not native to North America. I like all other sparrows but the house sparrow are enemies of the bluebirds which I am trying to get to nest in my boxes. I will not let a HOSP nest in my boxes. They will actually go in and kill the bluebirds. It happened to me.
    I don’t have a lot of them at the feeders because I use mostly sunflower and safflower seeds but they sure want to nest in my boxes!! The Audubon has a good article here….http://audubon-omaha.org/bbbox/ban/hsbyse.htm

  24. Donna I really enjoyed the story of this golden sparrow both here and on Janet’s blog…such a beautiful bird and indeed a sign of good luck my friend!

  25. Rose says:

    I just saw your golden sparrow on Janet’s blog–what a handsome fellow he is! I must admit the white sparrow isn’t quite as attractive, but she is certainly unusual-looking. Thanks to you and Janet for such interesting and informative posts!

  26. Marguerite says:

    Read both yours and Janet’s posts and it has been really informative. Makes me wonder if I’ve ever seen a mis-coloured bird before but just didn’t realize it.

    • Thank you for reading both posts. I think if you saw the two birds that visited here, you would have immediately known them to be strange. I think any leucistic bird really stands out in the flock. I spot the golden one immediately in amongst the regular sparrows. It was like when two goldfinches visited the other day. They are not so common here at feeders, so I noticed them right away.

  27. Brian Comeau says:

    Looks like you live in an amazing area. Lots of variety of animals and such.

  28. Pingback: White eastern curlew in Australia | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  29. mazza18467 says:

    hi, from the Netherlands, leucisme here is seen as a food-deficianty (I am not sure if I am spelling this right) We see it in crows when they had to much fries to eat too much fat. Normally a leucisme bird will not have offspring sins they are infertile, we also see this with other animals. I wonder since sparrow are living in big families, if she adopted the little ones as her own.
    Love site by the way, A shame that mine is in Dutch. It does not attract so many people as it could because of the language.
    The paintings on your site are they made by you?
    I enjoyed it .

Comments are closed.