Lacking Colour: The Difference Between Albino and Leucistic Birds

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

 If you have been observing birds, chances are that sooner than later you will spot a bird that has white feathers or spots where you are used to seeing colour on that species. Birds can be leucistic, which causes them to lack some pigment, but not all pigment. It is far rarer to see a completely albino animal. So, what is the difference between albino and leucistic birds? 

Leucistic Common Grackle. Photo by Ontario Birds by WBU Barrie and WBU Newmarket member, Wendy Leszkowicz 

Albinism is a genetic mutation that causes that animal to lack melanin completely. Melanin is a colour pigment and these animals will often appear entirely white. It is important to note that birds that naturally have reds and oranges as part of their plumage colour may still display these warm tones, as warm colours are formed from carotenoids, a different kind of colour pigment that is still present in these birds. Albinism also affects the eyes and usually, the eyes will appear red or pink. There are also sight difficulties associated with this condition. That being said, albinism is rarer in the animal world because these animals have severe disadvantages.  With a complete lack of melanin, their feathers are often weaker and break or deteriorate. With a lack of camouflage and poorer eyesight, their chances of survival are diminished. 

Leucism is also a genetic condition but does not result in a complete lack of melanin, or colour. In this case, all colour pigments, including melanin, can be reduced. Sometimes these birds appear pale as if their overall colour has been lightened, often we notice leucistic birds with white patches on their bodies. This is referred to as being piebald. It can be really exciting to see a partially leucistic bird, as they are entirely unique. This condition does not have any other effects on the animal and is far more common than albino animals. 

Leucistic Raccoon. Photo by Hope for Wildlife 

The key difference in a leucistic versus albino animal is that leucistic animals will still have pigmented eyes and noses, albino animals will not. 

Another unique thing to witness right outside your own window, keep a lookout for birds (or other wildlife) lacking pigmentation. As always, we would love to see your photos! 



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