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Leucistic Nuthatch

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

January 10, 2022

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (for those too young for this reference, it refers to vinal records that would skip and repeat the same thing over and over again and were considered broken) I love unique or unusual critters. I try to highlight many of the more interesting and exceptional animals in this column, and this week is no different. I was contacted last spring by a wonderful reader of this column. She had a usual bird coming to her feeder. A leucistic White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).

I made the trek over to scope out the situation and met the wonderful homeowner who welcomed me to her yard. The bird in question was no where to be found so we exchanged phone numbers to keep in contact and I headed home keeping my fingers crossed this very rare bird would return.

Fast forward to early fall and I received a text message from the homeowner reporting that the leucistic nuthatch was back and visiting the feeders on a regular basis. I shuffled my schedule and headed out as soon as I could. Arriving at the home, I knew the homeowner wouldn’t be around for a couple hours. The bird was mostly seen in the backyard so I had a choice of which way I should go around the house so I wouldn’t scare away the bird if it was there.

I chose the left side of the house and slowly worked my way around the side until I could start to see the backyard and the feeders. Immediately I knew I picked the wrong side because I was looking directly into the sunlight and the birdfeeders where right where I needed to walk to get to the correct side of the sunlight to capture a good picture.

Moving slowly with my camera in hand, I though it wouldn’t be too difficult to quickly get over and get set up on the other side of the feeders. Right at that moment I noticed the small, all white bird on the feeder. Dang, now there is no chance of getting to the best light for a quality picture. I had no idea if this was the last time the bird was going to visiting the feeders for the day or not.

I grabbed a few terrible, backlite shots just in case the bird never returns and then I waited until it flew off so I could move to the other side of the yard and get ready with the sun at my back. Much to my surprise in just a few minutes the little white bird was back and hung around long enough for me to capture some great images of this highly unusual bird. For the next 4 hours I stood there waiting for it visit the feeders and had several very good opportunities to capture even more images.

Leucism (lu sizem) is a condition that produces a wide variety of results, ranging from partial to nearly complete loss of pigmentation in an animal. The term Leucistic and Leucism are derived from the Latin variant “leuk” and from the Greek “leukos” meaning “white”. It causes normally colorful animals to have white or pale-yellow patches but doesn’t change the eye color. It is similar, but not the same, as albinism which leaves the critter with a complete lack of color resulting in a pure white or sometimes yellowish body and pink eyes.

While albinism is a genetic mutation that causes complete lack of pigment, leucism is only partial loss of pigment in various amounts and is an issue at the pigment cellular level. Leucism can occur in almost any kind of animal, but it seems to be most common in birds. Over the years I’ve seen crows with one white wing, a robin with a white head and a Red-tailed Hawk that was pure white with just a hint of rusty color in its tail.

Birds with leucism are not very common but this condition is more common than albinism. One bird survey reports that it occurs in about 1 in 30,000 birds. In my estimates, I would say it is less common than what this survey suggests. Either way, having a chance to capture some images of this leucistic White-breasted Nuthatch was such an honor. If you have an interesting critter visiting your yard, give me a shout. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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