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.

The Joy of Trail Cams

All photos and videos in this column are from trail cams on the mountain placed and monitored by the Scotts. (If you’re reading this via email or in a feed reader, you may have to click through to see the videos.)

Almost as soon as they settled into their new home, back in 2009, our caretaker couple — Troy and Paula Scott — installed three strobe cameras. As avid hunters, they were interested initially in monitoring the movements of deer over our square mile of mountain property.

But soon they were capturing other creatures on their cameras, especially at night. Paula quickly became the chief monitor of their cameras, and when the company that produced their strobe cameras — Wild Game Innovation — came out with video cameras, they purchased three of them.

Paula admits that monitoring the cameras throughout the year is addictive to her. She used to dislike winter, once hunting season ended, but now it’s her favorite time of year. That’s because she uses bait to attract a wide range of wild creatures. She hangs a discarded deer carcass by a wire from a tree limb, so it swings a foot or two off the ground directly in front of a camera.

Of course, when bears are abroad, she does not use bait, although she did get a bear on the surprising date of February 27. And that’s what she likes most about the cameras. She learns more about animal behavior especially with the video cameras. In less than two years, she has gotten excellent footage of 15 species of birds and mammals.

Her favorite sighting so far has been of two different fishers that kept returning to the bait. One especially she describes as a “camera ham.” It swung back and forth with the carcass and often faced the camera. Then it turned on its back and rolled with the carcass. All the while it seemed puzzled by this strange source of food.

Both Paula and I have had excellent sightings of fishers in our woods. We’ve also seen tracks in the snow. But the video footage of fishers gave us a whole new perspective on fisher behavior.

Watching two raccoons and an opossum feeding peacefully around the carcass was another surprising behavior observation for Paula.

“I figured they would be competitive and they weren’t,” she says.

She was also surprised that an American crow fed beside five turkey vultures.

And both she and Troy were amused and chagrined when an old hen decoy they had used to unsuccessfully attract gobblers years ago proved irresistible to six jakes at a time. She even has a video of a gobbler displaying in front of the decoy.

Besides the fishers, her other favorite sightings are several photos of a bobcat at the bait at night and a lovely video of a red-tailed hawk near the bait during a snowy day. I’m particularly fond of photos she has of red and gray foxes, despite the presence of coyotes in our area, because coyotes are supposed to prey on red foxes.

Recently they used a camera to find out what was chewing on their new deck at night. As they suspected, it was a porcupine. Instead of killing it, they put a cayenne pepper mixture on the deck and so far it’s kept the porcupine away.

Their original plan, to document deer, also has worked out well. They even have videos of a buck making a scrape and putting his scent on an overhanging limb. Paula cautions, though, that putting the cameras out during deer breeding season gives a false sense of the number of bucks in a hunting area because bucks come in from adjoining properties in search of doe.

When targeting deer, they put the cameras along obvious deer trails, leave them for a month, and then switch them. For other animals, it depends on the time of year and how successful the location is in capturing wildlife footage.

Learning how to obtain good images during the day means positioning them so that the sun doesn’t shine on them, otherwise, you end up with a lot of white footage, she says. You also have to hope that a bear won’t take issue with them. Paula’s brother-in-law Jeff had one ripped off and stomped into pieces, but so far they’ve been lucky. Only two cameras have been pulled down but not damaged.

Paula says in summary that, “these cameras, if you utilize them all year, pay for themselves. If you have a deer interest, as we did, and invest in cameras, you see it’s just not deer out there. It’s a lot of things.”

trail cam bobcat

a bobcat at the bait pile

Discovering what’s out there has tempted folks throughout the world to invest in trail cameras. One writer friend, Ken Lamberton, recently posted on Facebook a beautiful photo of a cougar on a fallen tree in the Mule Mountains of southern Arizona where he and his wife Karen live.

Speaking of cougars, Valentine, Nebraska businessman Kirk Sharp has 16 trail cameras posted around his ranch, which is a half-mile north of Rocky Ford on the Niobrara River in the wild north-central section of Nebraska. One of his cameras, mounted on a wooden fencepost, captured a cougar closely chasing a deer at 11:00 p.m. It was the first authenticated footage of a cougar chasing prey in the state, although since there was a deep canyon directly in front of them, no one knows the outcome.

James Hill III of Waterford Township, Erie County, Pennsylvania wondered what was taking the suet at his feeders. Hill, the founder of the Purple Martin Society, has a 150-acre wildlife sanctuary. Although he figured a bear was probably doing the damage, he put out a camera with a motion detector. To his surprise it was a sow with two cubs sharing the suet with them.

“I was astonished,” Hill says. “I never figured there’d be a family. I’m happy to have them.”

While individuals are enjoying their cameras, and finding out more about wildlife on their properties, so too are wildlife biologists. For instance, two researchers from Texas Tech University — Blake Gresham and Phil Borsdorf — have been studying the endangered lesser prairie chicken at The Nature Conservancy’s Yoakum Dunes Preserve near Lubbock, Texas. By erecting remote video cameras on 15 water tanks at the Preserve, they photographed 800 visits to the tanks by lesser prairie chickens, disproving the belief that the birds don’t need open water because they get enough moisture, except during drought, from succulent plants, insects, and dew. Gresham and Borsdorf found that hens especially needed extra water during nesting time because it takes a cup and a half of water to produce a clutch of ten eggs.

trail cam gray fox

gray fox

Conservation organizations are also starting to utilize trail cameras. A recent article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Biological Sciences entitled “Community Structure and Diversity of Tropical Forest Mammals: Data from a Global Camera Trap Network” recounts the results from the world’s first global camera trap mammal study. It involved nearly 52,000 candid shots of 105 mammal species from seven tropical sites around the globe.

The camera traps, low on the ground, made no noise and emitted no light so poachers couldn’t spot them at night. But in Africa, elephants, like our black bears, don’t like strange objects in their territory and tried to crush them.

Jorge Ahumada, the lead author and an ecologist with the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network (TEAM) says that “The study shows for us that for the conservation of these mammal species, size matters; …the size of the protected area and the degree of human activity around it have an effect on the …diversity of these animal communities.”

The Central Suriname Nature Reserve in South America had the most diversity — 28 species — while Nam Kading in Lao Public Democratic Republic in southeast Asia had the least — 13 species. The other sites included Uganda and Tanzania in Africa, Indonesia in Southeast Asia, Brazil in South America and Costa Rica in Central America.

The study ran from 2008-10 under the auspices of Conservation International, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Wildlife Conservation Society. Because of its success, they have expanded it into 17 wilderness areas in Panama, Brazil, Peru, Madagascar, Congo, Cameroon, Malaysia and India. Ahuda says that these cameras “are reliable observers of the state of our world,” and the study concludes that “camera traps are a useful, efficient, cost-effective, easily replicable tool to study and monitor terrestrial mammals.”

They are also useful for studying large raptors. Dr. Todd Katzner at West Virginia University, along with Kieran O’Malley and Rob Tallman of the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources, is using them for estimating the size of the wintering golden eagle population in the Appalachians including Pennsylvania. The bait is road-killed deer dumped into a small clearing surrounded by tall trees where golden eagles can perch. The bait should be opened along the legs and abdomen to draw in common ravens and other birds that, in turn, alert eagles. Like Paula’s bait, it must be wired to keep it from being dragged off by other animals. The camera should be oriented to the north because that ensures that the sun is to the side or behind the camera, thus preventing white photos. The study is run from January 1 to February 15, and we are hoping to find a good place on our property for Paula to set up a camera.

Hunters in the United States, who first popularized the use of cameras to monitor deer presence, should feel proud of how useful these cameras have become in wildlife monitoring and conservation.