Squire request for bird identification results in huge response

Albino and partial albino birds. A full albino Northern Cardinal, recognizable  by the lack of pigment in the eyes, making  them appear pink. Original gouache  painting copyright David Sibley.
Albino and partial albino birds.
A full albino Northern Cardinal, recognizable
by the lack of pigment in the eyes, making
them appear pink. Original gouache
painting copyright David Sibley.

Squire readers are very generous with their knowledge and time. Several readers were quick to respond to our request for help to identify the mystery bird picture we published in last week’s issue. Lori Tiemen, of Wild Birds Unlimited was the first caller when the paper was still hot off the presses. She said the bird was a female mature cardinal that was not quite an albino. She said she could tell the bird was not young because juvenile cardinals have black beaks, not the bright orange in our bird.

She said she was certain the bird was a female because the markings on the bird were the same as an ordinary colored female cardinal. The male of the species is the bright red we recognize for this bird, while females are usually a tan color flecked with orange and displaying color highlights consistent with the mystery bird. She said the unusual color is extremely rare and if she were to be fortunate enough to spot a bird like the one Vicki Hall emailed to us, she would “fall to the ground.”

Reader R Earl Hull emailed “check out the Pyrrhuloxia Cardinal.  Very close discription, but could be the “morph” also.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has the following description of the pyrrhuloxia cardinal:

The Pyrrhuloxia is a tough-as-nails songbird of the American Southwest and northern Mexico.
The Pyrrhuloxia is a tough-as-nails songbird of the American Southwest and northern Mexico.

Dapper in looks and cheerful in song, the Pyrrhuloxia is a tough-as-nails songbird of baking hot deserts in the American Southwest and northern Mexico. They’re closely related to Northern Cardinals, but they are a crisp gray and red, with a longer, elegant crest and a stubby, parrotlike yellow bill. During breeding season Pyrrhuloxias are fiercely and vocally territorial, but in the winter they forget their disputes and join together in large foraging flocks.

Based on the description that this bird lives in hot climates we would guess this is not the Michigan backyard beauty Hall photographed. The description also mentions the bird as having a bright yellow beak, also indicating that the Rockford bird is not a pyrrhuloxia. But we appreciate the chance to share information about all possibilities.

Carol Himebaugh contacted the Squire with the following: My daughter lives in Byron Center and recently saw an albino cardinal with this same coloring.  If you google “pictures of albino cardinal” I believe you will be able to see that is probably also one.  Hope this helps.

Another reader sent the Squire a link to a site about color abnormality which offered the following information: The presence of white feathers on a normally dark bird is the most frequently seen color abnormality. Every birder can expect to encounter white or partly-white birds with some regularity, and the more striking examples will stand out even to novices.

All black and brown coloration in birds comes from melanin (of two types). Birds create melanin pigments using an enzyme, and this melanin is deposited in the growing feathers by color cells. At any stage and for many different reasons this complex process can break down, leading to a variety of conditions: an inability to produce melanin and complete absence of melanin throughout; an inability to deposit melanin in the feathers and an absence of melanin in some or all feathers; a lack of one type of melanin (many possible causes), leading to an absence of that type while retaining the other; a failure to fully oxidize the melanin leading to a change in color from blackish to brownish; a partial loss of one or both types of melanin (many possible causes), and therefore a lower concentration of melanin in the feathers.

Through careful study birders can sometimes deduce the cause of the abnormality, but different conditions can produce nearly identical results. Conversely, the same condition in different species of birds can produce very different results.

JanIgnatoski emailed us, “My husband says the mystery bird is a “partially albino cardinal.”

Ed emailed: It is an albino cardinal. I saw one when I lived in Virgina. As soon as I saw the picture I knew what it was.

Becki said, “I have to agree with the lady who took the photo. It is an albino, or fully leucistic northern cardinal. I have one that occasionally visits our home here on Lake Bella Vista as well. They are so beautiful!”

Our smart friend Georgia Donovan of the Isaak Walton League sent the following: It’s a Northern Cardinal with abnormal coloration. Not a complete albino, but the crest and red bill are those of a cardinal, and if you google albino cardinal you’ll see similar photos. According to Sibley, there are occasional color variations, usually white. Nice photo!

Lisa Leeman (Rockford Resident) also provided some very interesting information as follows: The identity of the mystery bird in the April 18th Squire is that of a Leucistic Cardinal or Diluted Plumage Cardinal.

Amanda Mackie sent the following: Dear Squire, The bird pictured is a partial albino female cardinal. I live close to Mrs. Hall. I have been watching this bird, its parents and offspring for several years. If you Google albino cardinal you will see other examples.

For those who want to learn more about birds, the timing couldn’t be better. The West Michigan Birdathon and Nature Festival is coming up on May 11 at Aquinas College, 1607 Robinson Road SE in Grand Rapids. The non-profit event is free and open to the public and will raise funds for the Grand Rapids Audubon Club. There will be a competitive birdathon which may be completed during the birdwatching tour from 5:55 to 11 a.m. It is a six-hour (or less) period from Friday, May 3 at 12:01 a.m. through Saturday, May 11 at 11:30 a.m. within Ottawa, Kent and Muskegon Counties.

A beginner-friendly birdwatching tour with expert guides will be Friday, May 10 at 5:30 to sunset and Saturday, May 11 from 7 to 11 a.m. Learn about the many tree species found on the grounds of the Aquinas campus Saturday, May 11 from 8 to 11 a.m. and pick up interesting nature-related trivia and raffle prizes during lunch on Saturday, May 11 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. There will also be a nature photography contest (we think Vicki Hall should win) submissions are due Saturday, May 11 by 11:30 a.m. Link to contest rules at www.aquinas.edu/birdathon/schedule.


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The Squire has been Rockford’s free weekly newspaper since 1871. Our loyal readership includes over fifteen thousand homes in the Rockford area, including the affluent Lakes area of Lake Bella Vista, Bostwick Lake and Silver Lake; Belmont, Blythefield, as well as Algoma, Courtland, Cannon and Plainfield Townships. The Squire is distributed through the U.S. Post Office every Thursday. We also deliver to in-town businesses and homes with paper carriers and news stands in our grocery stores and over thirty local shops.