Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December 30: White

I think of the color white now not because of snow or the almost full moon, but because in the past few days, Maine birders have posted on the Maine Birding List-serv photos of two different white birds. These birds are leucistic, not albino. Put simply, leucism is caused by developmentally defective pigment cells, while albinism is caused by a genetic lack of melanin. The main visible differences are that a leucistic animal doesn't have the albino's red eyes and may not be pure white. I've seen a song sparrow with a white face and a crow with some white tail feathers, for instance. But these photos depicted birds that were, if not as pure white as driven snow, almost entirely white.

The first bird is a junco that has been coming to a feeder in Freedom for most of December. Normally, a junco is an overall slate-grey bird with a white belly. This junco, photographed on a very snowy feeder against snow-covered bushes, is strikingly white, with only a thin dark edge to its wings, dark eyes, and a junco's typical pink legs and bill. This beautiful bird looks as if it's been crafted from the surrounding drifts and brought to life--Frosty the Snowbird. I wonder if it's aware how well it blends in with the snow, if it has learned how to make itself invisible.

This morning a birder in southern Maine posted a photo of a leucistic red-tailed hawk that has apparently been regularly seen in Eliot for the past four years in the neighborhood of the Marshwood Middle School. The photographer has seen the bird with his non-white mate. (With most hawks, the females are larger, hence the assumption that the smaller, white bird is male. Apparently his freakish color didn't render him unattractive to at least one other of his kind.)  The photo shows a white hawk flying against a background of bare trees. Except for his dark eye and bill, the hawk truly looks like a ghost bird, or the surreal visitation of some forest angel.

Two unusual white birds during these snowy days of winter, two pale muses:

White bird in winter--
blank as the snow-covered field
and as beautiful.

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