Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

There is a condition in nature called leucism, which is fairly rare.  When someone spots a white animal, they often think- ‘it’s an albino!’  Sometimes that is true, but an animal can be leucistic, which isn’t quite the same thing,

Here’s a photo I took recently of a Robin- check out the part of its tail that is white.

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I spotted this bird fairly easily- the flash of white from its tail was pretty visible.  This might make it harder being a leucistic bird, since predators can see them better as well.

What is a leucistic bird?

Leucism, or leukism, is an abnormal plumage condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents pigment, particularly melanin, from being properly deposited on a bird’s feathers. As a result, the birds do not have the normal, classic plumage colors listed in field guides, and instead the plumage have several color changes, including:

*White patches where the bird should not have any
*Paler overall plumage that looks faint, diluted or bleached
*Overall white plumage with little or no color discernable

The degree of leucism, including the brightness of the white and the extent of pigment loss, will vary depending on the bird’s genetic makeup. Birds that show only white patches or sections of leucistic feathers – often in symmetrical patterns – are often called pied or piebald birds, while birds with fully white plumage are referred to as leucistic birds.

The Robin I saw was notable, but recently there’s been a very rare leucistic bird sighted in the Columbus area that is much more spectacular-looking.  This bird is currently residing at Inniswood Metro Gardens, which you may remember hosted an Ovenbird warbler during the winter of 2011/2012.  I showed up there one day late last month to see it, and I wasn’t disappointed.

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There’s an area called the Herbal Garden where the bird has mostly been seen.


It turned out that many others were there to see the bird as well- curious onlookers and local birders both.  We didn’t have to wait long!

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Suddenly, the bird flew into the nearby bushes and perched a while.  Then it came fairly close to us to feed.

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This beautiful bird, after careful study of photographs, has been identified as a probable leucistic female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.  This is a rare bird indeed (both color-wise and behavior-wise).  Usually, this time of year, all of the Ruby-Throats have flown south for the winter- this one has hung around.  It’s unknown why this bird didn’t fly south with her compatriots- perhaps she cannot for some reason.

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The fine folks working for the Metro Parks system have placed a hummingbird feeder near the bird’s favorite flowers.  As of this writing, the bird has been coming daily to feed at this feeder, since the flowers have all stopped blooming.

You may wonder- is it bad to feed such a small bird in cold conditions?  There’s information that’s been made available as to the winter feeding of hummingbirds:

A deceptively small yet incredibly profound fact has recently been discovered: It is being proven, by banding and recapture studies, that hummingbirds survive winter conditions in the United States very well on their own, and not only make it back to their traditional breeding grounds but actually return to the very same winter feeding grounds year after year after year. By making nectar plants, feeders, and natural habitat available all year you are helping hummingbirds, not hindering them, during the fall and winter months.

Hummingbirds are a lot tougher than they look. As one hummingbird bander has pointed out, could you survive outside in 4 degree F temperatures and nine inches of snow? Hummingbirds can and do so, given the right habitat and resources, and it appears to be the norm rather than the exception.

This is encouraging news- though swapping out frozen hummingbird feeders for warmer thawed ones in the morning may be necessary (some folks heat their feeders).  Apparently hummingbirds go into a stupor when they sleep to slow their metabolism down so that they can get by with no midnight snacking.

Overall, the odds aren’t in favor of such fully leucistic hummingbirds- apparently their feathers are not quite as robust as normal hummingbird feathers, and there hasn’t been such a bird ever recorded living for more than a year. We’ll have to wish this little bird the best, and she’s in good hands with the Metro Park folks watching out for her.  Best of luck, little gal!

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