Ghost Bird

leucistic redtail 1“What is it?” the e-mail asked.

Attached to it were four photos from a trail cam our caretakers, Paula and Troy Scott, had set up behind the spruce grove. The photos showed a large white raptor feeding on top of a carcass the Scotts had secured to lure in wintering golden eagles for an ongoing region-wide study.

Stuck inside most of last winter with a deep muscle tear in my left calf, I eagerly awaited photos of the many wild creatures that visited their three trail cams. But this bird was a real puzzle.

The raptor’s back and head were white except for the tips of a couple black primary wing feathers, a small black patch on top of its head and another on its neck. Its breast, belly, and tail coverts were pure white and so were the feathers on its legs. Then I looked at the tail, which was mostly white with a couple bands of red. The mystery bird was a red-tailed hawk.

Like most people who see a white red-tail, I thought I was seeing a rarity. But according to William S. Clark and Brian K. Wheeler, authors of Hawks of North America, a Peterson Field Guide, “Partial albinos, varying from almost all white birds to some with just a few white feathers, are fairly common and are reported from almost all areas. Most birds are from half white to mostly white.”

Our bird was mostly white and did not have a dark area on its nape as most do. In addition, our bird had dark eyes and an orange beak and talons.

leucistic redtail 2I expected to find more information about white red-tails in my many books on birds, but even The Birds of North Americas definitive account of red-tailed hawks failed to mention this phenomenon.

I was more successful when I Googled “albinism in birds and animals” and “partial albinism in red-tailed hawks.” The former convinced me that terms for white creatures varied, although pure albinism in birds is caused by a genetic mutation that interferes with the production of the melanin or dark pigment that determines the black color of birds’ feathers.

One source declared that partial albinism is now called “leucism” and that the term comes from the Latin “leuk” or Greek “leukos” meaning “white.” But another source, which I found easier to understand, had a chart that differentiated between three types of albinism.

A true albino is white or pink all over with pink eyes and has little or no ability to produce colors. Those are indeed rare among mammals and birds. For instance, Henry Kendall, a master falconer in St. Louis, has reported 600 sightings of oddly-colored red-tails throughout North America in ten years. Of those, only one was a pure white albino with pink eyes.

Those eyes are pink because red blood cells in the retinal blood vessels beneath are not hidden by pigment. For this reason albino birds and animals often go blind since they don’t have pigments in their eyes to protect them from sunlight.

A leucistic creature is white or pink all over, its eyes are usually blue, and it has little ability to produce color. Another source says a leucistic animal is not pure white, its pigmentation is diluted, and its plumage is lighter than usual but not pure white. David Bird, an ornithologist, recently defined leucism as “a partial loss of melanin pigments” in Bird Watcher’s Digest. That simple definition suited me.

leucistic redtail 3A partial albino, also called a partial leucistic by some experts, has small portions or patches of white, its eyes are a normal color, and it has the ability to produce most normal colors. Some sources call this the piebald effect.

By then, I was thoroughly confused. Our bird had more than small patches of white. So too did the red-tails folks reported on Eddie B. Horvath’s blog devoted to white red-tail sightings throughout North America. I scanned the dozens of reports and found several from Pennsylvania. One, from near Quakertown was “absolutely pure white.” Another from Lake Wallenpaupack was “100% white.” A third, on Route 706, 10 miles from Montrose, was “completely white.” Most recently one was sighted at the Flight 93 memorial site on March 12, 2012 and again on August 13, 2012.

Seeing the same bird twice in one area is fairly rare. We and the Scotts saw our bird only on the trail cam once, last Valentine’s Day, and never in the air. Years ago I observed a white woodchuck for several minutes at the Far Field thicket and never again. And once my son, Steve, and I spotted a white deer in our forest as we were driving down our road. It too disappeared.

These white animals lack protective camouflage and are easy for predators to spot. White deer and white bears are also prized by hunters, and one website reported a small white black bear in Pennsylvania was legally killed by a hunter from Spring Mills back in 2006.

But raptors are protected by the National Migratory Bird Act, and when a white red-tail, which had lived in south Texas for several years, was shot and left on a two-lane road, residents were angry and posted a $1000 reward for any information about the perpetrator. A local scientist was quoted as saying that “the average citizen loves white red-tails.”

leucistic redtail 4Writing for the Times Union in Albany, New York several years ago, Richard Guthrie reported the presence of at least six white red-tails with dark eyes in the area. All were females and all were paired with normal-colored red-tail males and were nesting.

Despite all these tales of white red-tails, researchers reported years ago that the most common albino or partial albino wild bird species is the American robin. A whopping 8.22% of all such birds were robins, but other researchers hypothesized that it could be because robins are commonly seen and often live in our yards.

Another reason for the high number of white robins may be because they don’t migrate far. Melanin pigments make feathers that are strong and last longer and the lack of such pigments in albino or partial albinos weaken birds, especially those that migrate long distances.

Lost in the world of white creatures on the Internet, I also learned that New York State has the largest white deer herd in the world. Back in 1941 in Seneca County, 10,600 acres were fenced to enclose the Seneca Army Depot, isolating a small herd of white-tailed deer, some of which had white coats. In the 1950s, although hunting was allowed in the Depot, the commander declared that hunters were forbidden to shoot white deer. Today, even though the army is cleaning up the site and moving out, of the 700 deer inside the fence, 300 are white. There are folks up there hoping to save the herd and they mention a prophesy supposedly made by the Lenape, who said that “It has long been predicted that there would come a time when a white male and female deer would be seen together and that this would be a sign to the people to come together.” I presume they mean that if enough like-minded people come together, the white deer herd will be saved for the many people who are interested in seeing them.

leucistic redtail 5Some Native Americans called white deer “ghost deer,” and I think of our white red-tail as a “ghost bird,” because we only saw it once and only on photographs. Artist and writer Julie Zickefoose was luckier. She spotted a pure albino red-tail during a drive from her rural Ohio home to Columbus on October 11, 2012. She posted several photos of it on her blog and described it as “something searingly beautiful, transformative, a vision, a bolt from the blue,” a description, I think, that those who have seen such birds would agree with.


Game cam photos courtesy of Paula Scott.