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Flighty: Rare bird hard to track down

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2007

 

  A piebald robin cautiously watches its surroundings while feeding in a yard alongside Kobuk Street in Soldotna recently. The bird's black and white markings are unusual when compared to those of a normal robin. Photo by M. Scott Moon

A piebald robin cautiously watches its surroundings while feeding in a yard alongside Kobuk Street in Soldotna recently. The bird's black and white markings are unusual when compared to those of a normal robin.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

With a conspicuous red breast, frequent habit of foraging on the front lawn, and distribution range from Barrow to the Florida Keys, the American robin may be a familiar sight, but one rare specimen spotted around town recently is worth taking notice of.

“When you see the bird fly, you just see a flash of white,” said Marianne Clark of Soldotna in regard to the robin — unusually colored with large splotches of white plumage — that was first spotted roughly a week ago around Kobuk Street in Soldotna.

“It was really obvious on the green lawn. The white caught my eye, but I knew it wasn’t a seagull,” Clark said.

Todd Eskelin, a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, agreed the robin was a rare sighting.

“It’s definitely an aberrant bird. It’s not a true albino, but more of a melanistically challenged bird,” he said.

Melanin refers to pigment cells which in humans and animals are responsible for coloring skin, hair, feathers, eyes and other body parts. True albinos have a total lack of melanin due to inheritance of recessive genes, but animals that have irregular patches of white instead of the normal color pattern due to genetic defects — not naturally, or seasonally as with ptarmigan — are known as “pied” or “piebald.”

Eskelin said specific health problems also are occasionally linked to these genetic conditions, and while he couldn’t say for certain if the robin would have any ailments, he did speak to the ecological aspects of the bird’s blotched pattern.

“If I had to guess, I’d say the white’s going to be detrimental because it’ll draw attention to itself. On the nest in dark bushes or the crook of a tree, that white breast could stand out, allowing gray jays, magpies, squirrels and other nest predators to see it,” he said.

Eskelin said that also is one theory why albinos are so rare in nature. In prey species, the inability to hide from natural predators makes it more difficult to survive, so the albino genes may not get expressed as often because albino animals do not make it to reproductive age. The same could hold true for predator species because stealth and camouflage while hunting prey could be compromised by white patches.

Still, Eskelin said he has observed several birds with unnatural white coloring around the Kenai Peninsula.

“I’ve seen half a dozen other species in the past 10 years, such as red polls with white heads, fox sparrows and white crown sparrows with white tails. Some just had a spot of white, while others were almost all white. I’ve never seen it in robins, though,” he said.

Clark, a bird rehabilitator for the past 30 years, said this is also not the first species she has seen that was off-colored.

“You don’t see many like this, but I have seen crows with some white in them, and in the south I saw a red-tailed hawk with some white, but nothing like this. This took my breath away the first time I saw it,” she said.

In observing the robin, Clark said she has seen it gathering insects and flying them off to another location, so she believes the bird may have a nest somewhere.

“I’d like to locate the nest to see if any of the babies have odd colors as well,” she said.

So far, though, Clark said the bird has been leery of observers, and tracking down its nest has been difficult.

“It seems very spooky compared to common robins. You can walk near them and they’ll keep feeding, but this white one sees you on the other side of the street and takes off,” she said.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.



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