It was like a bird-shaped ghost—we couldn’t quite believe our eyes. My friend Debbie and I were birding near Grand Junction, in Colorado National Monument—a spectacular place of sheer cliffs, rock pinnacles, and copper-colored sandstone.
We had stopped for lunch, and were alternately taking bites of our sandwiches and grabbing our binoculars. Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Rock Wrens, and Gray Vireos abounded. I was surprised to see Gambel’s Quail running under the junipers; I thought of them as living a bit more to the south. I was told that the species had been introduced to Western Colorado as a game bird.
Then we noticed something strange. There was a white bird running around with the quail, and neither of us recognized it. We had to check this out! Abandoning our lunch, we grabbed cameras and binos and approached the area where our mystery bird was. Of course, the closer we got, the farther the bird ran. I quickly grabbed some unsatisfactory photos (shown here), and we enlarged them on the camera display.
Sure enough, our white ghost was a Gambel’s Quail, but it was almost entirely without pigment. Dark eyes, brown topnotch, and a brown mark down the wing separated our subject from a pure albino. The proper designation for a bird lacking some pigment in its plumage is “leucistic,” pronounced “lew-KISS-tic” (the Greek prefix “leuc-” means “white” or “colorless”). Albinos completely lack melanin, and thus are completely white and have pink/red eyes.
According to Project FeederWatch, “Leucism is a genetic mutation that prevents melanin from being deposited normally on feathers. … [L]eucism 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.” Our bird represented the first type.
Of course, a bright white bird stands out against red sandstone, and I was surprised that the quail hadn’t been eaten long ago. Since leucistic birds also frequently have trouble attracting a mate, the gene for leucism doesn’t get passed along very often, and is rare in a population. We were quite fortunate to get a glimpse of this rarity.
On a similar note, we have a leucistic Red-tailed Hawk here in Colorado Springs. Our local Audubon chapter gets regular inquiries about the “big white bird” near Palmer Park. (I’m currently the Answerer-of-Email for Aiken Audubon). From the bird’s large size, we’re guessing she’s female. Surprisingly, she has successfully mated and raised young during each of the past several years. Her continued survival may be due to her status as apex predator, living as she does in the middle of a city.
Our quail was easy to ID, with its unique body shape and size. Other leucistic birds may totally confuse a birder. Imagine trying to put a label on a mostly-white warbler, for example! That’s one reason I’m trying hard to notice attributes other than color when I’m out looking at birds… just in case.