Feathered Friends: Albino swallow stands out in a flock

9:22 am | August 20, 2012

My sharp-eyed friends, Jean and Brookie Potter, recently identified an albino Barn Swallow in the Siam community near their home at Wilbur Lake.

Photo courtesy of Jean Potter
Brookie and Jean Potter found this albino Barn Swallow, which is pictured perched on a wire with
other Barn Swallows. They found the swallows in a field located in the Siam community near the
Bee Cliff Cabins on the Watauga River.

Of course, because of the lack of the usual color clues, this individual swallow represented an identification challenge. The bird’s forked tail and the fact that it was associating with other Barn Swallows helped confirm the identification.

Some birds that I have noticed with varying degrees of albinism include American Crow and American Goldfinch. For several years, an American Crow with several white wing feathers took up residence at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton.

These examples of partial albinism are referred to by experts as Leucistic or Leucism.

The Sibley’s Guide to Birds indicates that certain avian species, including Red-tailed Hawks, Willet and American Robin, seem more prone to albinism than others. Various species of gulls, lackbirds and grackles also seem more affected by this condition.

Albino birds have some additional strikes running against them.

A completely albino bird is the most rare. The eyes in this case are pink or red, because blood shows through in the absence of pigment in the irises. The beak, legs and feet are very pale or white.

• Vision problems. Very few albino birds survive to adulthood. One of the reasons could involve impaired vision. A bird with poor eyesight is going to have trouble detecting and identifying predators. As a result, they are at greater risk of predation.

• In nature, the color white attracts attention. The poor bird might as well scream out, “come and get me” to potential predators. It’s difficult for an all-white bird to blend in with most surroundings. Falconers — individuals who keep tamed falcons for sport — confirm that their trained birds are much more likely to attack a white pigeon in a flock because it is conspicuous.

• The condition of albinism also results in a brittle feathers in the wings and tail. The very structure of the feather is deficient in comparison to a normal individual. These defective feathers probably reduce such a bird’s ability to fly.

• Finally, an albino bird is a lesson in conformity. There’s little room for “individualism” in a coordinated flock. The worst enemy of an albino bird may be its own kind. Albino birds often suffer harassment from their own species. Observations have been recorded among such species as Red-winged Blackbirds, Barn Swallows and African Penguins. Partial albinos as well as full albinos are afflicted. There’s just no place to stand out in a crowd if you’re a flocking bird. On the other hand, I didn’t manage to find any research into how albino birds from species that are more solitary are affected by their condition. I would suspect they are still at a disadvantage when it comes to such routine matters as attracting a mate. Potential mates may shy away from one of their own that looks too different.

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I received a nice email this past week from Gordon and Karen Kyte. The Kytes have lived on Heaton Creek in Roan Mountain for almost six years. They shared an account about their current hummingbird visitors.

“We have six feeders on our front porch that hold approximately a pint each,” they noted in their email.

They are averaging 20 or more hummers.

“They empty all of our feeders plus our neighbor’s every day, and we love it,” they wrote. “It is so entertaining to sit on our porch in the evenings.”

The Kytes said that the hummers engage in a “feeding frenzy” until around 8:45 p.m.

“Then, it’s like a switch is turned off, and they are immediately gone,” they wrote in their email.

At my own home, I can sit in a lawn chair and easily count a half dozen or more hummingbirds. I suspect their numbers are actually much higher.

My mother and I both have feeders in our yards, but we haven’t noticed any additional visits from the male Rufous Hummingbird that fed from a feeder on her front porch for a brief spell on Aug. 5. We still have plenty of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to keep us entertained.

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Last week also brought visits from a couple of warblers. On one of the mornings that started with temperatures just ever so slightly chilly, I spotted movement in one of the wild cherry trees at the creek. These trees are loaded with ripening cherries, so I suspect that they will attract a lot of migrating birds until the supply is exhausted.

The bird in the branches of the wild cherry turned out to be a male Black-and-white Warbler, which spends the spring and summer in the woodlands around my home.

In that same tree, I also saw a brief glimpse of a yellowish warbler. The bird looked a lot like a female Common Yellowthroat, but I really didn’t get a good enough look to confirm the identification.

On an recent evening stroll through the woods, I also glimpsed a male Hooded Warbler, who alerted me to his presence by producing his loud “chip” notes.

None of these warblers are, technically speaking, migrants. They have probably spent the entire summer season in the woods at my home.

But, the fact they are venturing forth from the woods to explore the yard and other habitats is a signal that they are getting restless. Other warblers and long-distance migrants will likely begin to make appearances in the coming weeks, and I can’t wait!

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To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, call me at 297-9077 or email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I am on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ ahoodedwarbler.

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