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Paint-by-Number Birds

Posted By Brian Cunningham On February 7, 2011 @ 12:09 pm In Birds,Rare Occurrences in Nature,Woodpeckers | 2 Comments

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Photo courtesy of Bill Stewart

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Photo courtesy of Bill Stewart

We have been fielding a number of questions regarding some strangely colored (or lack thereof) birds. The birds are all white, shades of gray or have odd patches of white amongst what would otherwise be normal coloration. It is almost like they are an unfinished paint-by-number art project. So, what is going on with these birds?

A feather’s color is determined by its genetic structure and pigments deposited as the feather grows. Pigments come from various foods, like fruits and insects. This is similar to how we use pigment dyes to color our clothes.

Genetics and certain dietary pigments create certain colors. Here are some examples.

• Red, orange, and yellow to violet colors come from carotenoid pigments.
• Black, brown, gray and related tints come from melanin and porphyrin pigments.
• Greens come from carotenoid and melanin pigments combined with structural feather elements.
• Blue and white colors are not created by pigments but by reflections of light off the structural elements of a feather.

Scientists generally agree that an albino bird is all white lacking pigment in its body and feathers. Then there are other scenarios where a bird has shades of gray or odd patches of white or gray among patches of normal coloration. These are often called leucistic pied birds.

The trouble is there are many variations and complications. Scientists are still working out exactly how to classify all these variations of bird colorations. Learn more from our Cornell Lab of Ornithology partner’s article, Plumage variations: Albinism or Leucism [5]?

No matter what you call it, it is uncommon to find a leucistic pied bird. It is even rarer to find a true albino bird.

So what do we call these unfinished, paint-by-number birds? We will let scientists figure that out. In the meantime, the more important question is…Are you enjoying the glimpse at such a unique bird and did you get pictures?


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[1] Image: http://www.printwhatyoulike.com/

[2] Image: http://blog.wbu.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/woodpecker2.jpg

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[4] Image: http://blog.wbu.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/woodpecker.jpg

[5] Plumage variations: Albinism or Leucism: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/AboutBirdsandFeeding/Albinism_Leucism.htm

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