Friday, March 16, 2018

Leucistic Cardinal

Cardinal of a different color - Andy Schiller
We had a strange visitor hanging around the Stream Team meeting at the Watershed Center Thursday evening.  Andy Schiller spotted it and managed to get a cellphone snapshot.  It was competing with cardinals and chickadees for feeder space, looking somewhat like a cross between a cardinal and a cockatoo.
Same bird earlier - Charley Burwick
I first called it piebald, a common word, better described as leucistic.  While albino is used to describe the total loss of pigmentation, including pale red eyes reflecting the color of blood, leucistic can be various shades from spotty like our friend to nearly complete.  It gets a lot more complicated as described in's Abnormal Coloration in Birds page.

In addition to drawing the attention of birders, leucism has other disadvantages.  Since melanin is structural as well as a pigment, feathers may wear out sooner, affecting flight and temperature control.  The reflection of heat can be a big disadvantage when facing cool spring winds.

Piebald, leucistic, you name it. - Pinterest
The more obvious problem is looking different.  It might affect survival, especially in more camouflaged birds like a sparrow although a male cardinal can hardly be called cryptic.  Attracting a mate may also be a problem in Spring when all the other guys are bright red, although who knows, maybe looking different helps - think of teenagers with tinted hair.

Be on the lookout at Monday's meeting and maybe we will get a chance to see it alive and in color, sort of.
3-20-2018 addendum
Dave Shanholtzer shared with me that he was a passionate birder with Greater Ozarks Audubon Society in the 1980s, the lone kid on their field trips.  He had a leucistic cardinal at his backyard feeder that he followed.   This is little David out with GOAS in the 80s and that might be Burwick in the skirt.