Rare white pileated woodpecker spotted west of Edmonton

While pileated woodpeckers are generally easily recognizable due to their bright red-crested heads and black-and-white bodies, two recent birds spotted in Alberta are distinctly different looking.

Reduced pigment may cause problems for birds, says naturalist

Naturalist Brian Keating says this bird likely has leucism, a genetic condition that causes partial loss of pigmentation in an animal’s skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticle (Karin and Robert Debenham)

​Karin and Robert Debenham have been watching woodpeckers feed in their backyard in Parkland County west of Edmonton for a decade — but say they had never seen a bird like the one they recently snapped a picture of.

Typically, pileated woodpeckers are easily recognizable due to their large size (about 400 grams, or the size of a crow), black-and-white bodies and bright red-crested heads.

The bird spotted by the Debenhams was the right the size and had the red crest, but instead of a dark body with a dabble of white, it was a mottled white-grey.

The woodpecker is the second of its pallor to be spotted in Alberta, says naturalist Brian Keating, a regular contributor to CBC Radio One in Alberta.

Because both of the light-coloured birds spotted in Alberta had dark eyes, they cannot be called true albinos, Keating said Monday.

Albino species characteristically have pink or red eyes, because without pigment in their retinas, the blood vessels in the eyes remain visible.

True albinism is rare in the wild, affecting only about one of every 1,800 birds, Keating said. Many die soon after fledging, the stage when feathers and wing muscles develop enough for flight.

Unique colouring may cause other problems for birds

Instead, Keating said the distinctive colouring of these two birds is likely due to a leucism, a genetic condition which causes partial loss of pigmentation in an animal's skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticles. The eyes, however, remain typical.

The extent and position of discolouration can vary between adults and their young, and can also skip a generation, he said.

Besides the obvious camouflage issues birds with the condition face, the reduction in pigment can cause their feathers to weaken, Keating said. In some cases, the condition can prevent a bird from flying which, coupled with their bright colouring, can put them at higher risk from predators.

Keating said there is also some evidence that albino and leucistic birds may not be recognized or accepted as potential mates.

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