It isn’t uncommon to go on social media and see people posting about a strange bird in their garden. They are bewildered by the combination of mottled black and white plumage on a bird the same size as a blackbird. Some are then disappointed to discover that this is a Common Blackbird with leucism rather than something more unusual. But, Are Leucistic Blackbirds common?
Leucistic (Leucism) in Blackbirds is relatively uncommon when compared to other species. The impact on the bird’s plumage also varies from a few patches to almost fully covering the bird. Robins and Sparrows are also known to be affected by leucism in addition to melanism. In Robins, it can affect the pigment in their distinctive redbreast.
But what is leucism and how does it differ from melanism? Does it affect the bird and more importantly, can we help the birds we see with it? Keep reading and I will explain!
The trait is found across the avian world and there will be Blackbirds across the country with this condition. But what exactly is leucism? Where else can you see this and similar conditions in the natural world, and does it do the bird any harm?
What Is Leucism?
Before we look at the effects of leucism on Common Blackbirds, it helps to know a little more about the condition and similar genetic abnormalities. Leucism is the most likely cause of a patchy lack of pigment. But, there are other causes. There are also some traits with excess pigmentation that are also interesting.
Leucism is a genetic condition where the creature in question doesn’t produce enough melanin. This then becomes apparent in the pigment of the feathers and it can become quite striking in birds that are typical all-black in colour. Blackbirds exhibit this in different ways and may not suffer too badly from it, although more severe cases can be detrimental to the quality of their feathers. Nevertheless, it is a treat to see these birds and you can still provide an excellent home for them in your garden.
Leucism Vs Albinism: What’s The Difference?
A common question here relates to the difference between leucism and albinism. There is an assumption that they are the same thing but this is not the case. An albino creature will have no pigment across its body. This leads to a uniform pale coat that is pure white or an off-white tone. You can find that yellow pigments aren’t as easily affected by the gene, so there may be a yellowish tone in places.
On the other hand, Leucistic creatures tend to have a few pigment-free patches or paler fur or feathers instead, which could cover a large percentage of the body. So, the other tell-tale sign to look out for is the colour of the eye. Albino animals have red/pink eyes where the blood vessels become more visible. However, the eyes of the leucistic birds stay the same because the condition merely affects those patches in the feathers.
Leucism And Progressive Greying.
Another important trait here is that there is a substantial absence of pigment in that area from birth when there is hereditary leucism at play. Those areas will be a strong white and shouldn’t deviate from that lack of colour at any point.
This is where the condition varies from progressive greying. Where the bird or animal shows a change in appearance over time, for example, you can find doves that have a deep grey colour over their body when young but become paler and more mottles as they age.
It looks a little like us getting grey hair as we get older. But, there are ideas that this condition may be more to do with the environment and food sources than genetics.
The problem here is that many people lump any condition with a loss or lack of pigment as a form of leucism if they are sure there isn’t a case of albinism. This seems inaccurate and a little lazy when the two forms are so different. It would also surely be easier to study the rates and occurrences of leucism with a better distinction between to two.
What About Pale-morph And Dark-morph Birds.
This idea of leucism also brings about the factor of pale-morph birds. Pale morphs are those that exhibit paler markings than the standard form. An excellent example of this is the buzzard, where there are notable differences between individuals.
Some will have very pale creamy chest and mid-brown wings, backs, and other markings. This is a variant rather than a genetic abnormality. At the same time, you can find dark-morph birds with fewer pale patches around the underside and chest and the tones are much darker.
With this in mind, we should also take a moment to mention the potential for melanistic individuals in the natural world – where there is an excessive amount of pigment rather than too little. So if you see a garden bird or common visitor where an individual looks darker than expected, this could be the cause.
Is Your Black And White Bird A Leucistic Blackbird?
With so many potential variants and these genetic conditions, how can you be sure that the bird you are seeing is leucistic or melanistic regular rather than something more unusual? The best thing to do is to keep an open mind, check bird guides, and ask around online.
While the patchy blackbirds aren’t going to be anything but leucistic, some species have alternative markings if they are subspecies or European variants. You don’t want to overlook a potential once-in-a-lifetime sighting.
Because of this variation in patterns and tones in leucistic birds, it is important to look at other features to get a good idea of a correct identification. For example, with blackbirds, you need to look at their build. Blackbirds are one of the bigger, stockier garden birds and easy to tell apart from robins, dunnocks and other birds feeding on the ground.
These leucistic blackbirds should also retain their orange bill to help with identification. You can also watch the bird’s behaviour to see if they are feeding and moving in the same way. Also, it helps if you can see one in song to hear that distinctive call.
How Common Is Leucism In Blackbirds?
Leucism in blackbirds isn’t that frequently seen compared to other species, but there are still plenty of interesting sightings of pied birds in gardens. The patterns created are quite random and you could get a bird with a few white patches, something with a more distinct colour-blocking, or one that is almost entirely white.
They are far from the only bird to develop this condition and you may also see it in other garden birds. Robins can develop leucism and melanism, which could affect the pigment in their red breast.
Is It Just Male Blackbirds That Develop Leucism?
Studies show that it is just as likely to occur in females. We just happen to pay more attention to the males with the condition because the effects on the plumage are more noticeable. This is also why we tend to notice leucistic individuals in other dark-coloured birds.
For example, a leucistic starling that doesn’t have the deep black feather and iridescence will stand out in a flock. Still, there are lots of other examples of birds that have this condition in our local patches. Sparrows and robins can get it too, but they may show a more subtle change in colour or mottled look.
Is Leucism Bad For Blackbirds?
There are potential downsides to being leucistic. The main concern for any bird with this condition is that its feathers won’t be as strong as they should be because of the lack of pigment. This weakness could mean they incur more damage to their feathers or see them fall out more readily.
This could be a problem when it comes to flight if they lose too many primaries at once. A typical moult happens periodically so that there is no sudden loss of essential flight feathers. Here there is the risk that a quick tuck from a beak may damage a significant patch. Still, healthy birds that don’t get into too many scraps and avoid predators should be OK.
This leads to the second potential issue, a lack of camouflage. Perhaps less of a problem for the male Blackbird who isn’t exactly trying to blend in, but white markings are more striking when hiding undercover in greenery.
This can be a bigger problem for prey species in other environments that develop leucism but rely more on using their plumage to hide from predators. They may not survive as long as their nestmates. The average age of a healthy black Blackbird is about 3-4 years because of the risks of avoiding dangers and finding enough food while sustaining a good territory. As these white and black Common Blackbirds are at a disadvantage, they may not survive as long.
Then there is the issue of breeding. Females can have high expectations for males to conform to a certain standard to get the best genes for their offspring. Leucistic males may be overlooked because of their genetic abnormalities and unable to find a mate.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you want a healthier population of birds over successive generations. Those that grow fond of their unusual little friend lay like the idea of miniature versions flying around, but it isn’t the best idea for the population’s long-term health.
Taking Care Of Leucistic Blackbirds In Your Garden.
Now you know what these birds have to go through when they have this condition; you may feel a little bit sorry for them. So, what can be done to make life a little easier for them? The first thing to do is to make sure that your garden is attractive to these birds to give them the natural food supplies and cover from predators that they need.
This means plenty of healthy shrubs and natural hedges where they can hide away and find berries in the winter. You also want to ensure that you don’t use pesticides and extensive extermination methods as the birds will enjoy eating them. These planting choices can also help when it comes to providing nesting sites, should your local leucistic male be able to hold down territory in your garden and attract a mate.
The chances are slim, but it doesn’t hurt to lend a hand. You can also work on your supplemental feeding strategy to provide more food in the winter, such as suet cakes on bird tables.
Do Leusictic Blackbirds Need Veterinary Attention?
No! There is no need to capture a leucistic Common Blackbird or call someone to see them. There is every chance that they are living their best life as long as they have access to food, water, and shelter and aren’t dealing with any other condition or injury. This sort of human intervention will only stress them out and make things worse. But, there are other things you can do to help them out and ease your mind.
Can You Give Melanin Supplements To Leucistic Common Blackbirds?
One thought that some bird lovers may have is whether they can bring other supplements into a bird’s diet to help them out. There are products that owners of captive birds use to help the condition of feathers and counteract a loss of melanin production.
While that can work fine in these cases, it is bad for wild birds. For a start, you can’t guarantee that the intending patient will exclusively take the treatment you provide. These melanin substances work best in clean water during a moult. You can’t set this up effectively in your garden without healthy birds drinking it too.
Will Leucistic Blackbirds Stick Around?
Finally, it would be best if you prepared yourself because this pretty black and white Blackbird won’t be around very long. The odds aren’t in their favour when it comes to avoiding predators and challenging other males for territories.
They may pop by for a feed and attempt to oust an older male to establish their territory and then disappear for a while. But, you can still keep an eye out for them on your local patch. These birds may have a detrimental genetic condition but they can enrich our birdwatching experience.
Have you seen Leucistic Blackbirds in your garden and taken a picture? I would love to see it!
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