Monday, January 28, 2013

Leucistic House Finch

January is not the best month of the year to go looking for birds, but I was here in the Chihuahuan Desert searching for them anyway…I had some luck.

Most birds have summer ranges and winter ranges resulting in huge shifts in bird populations. The colorful songbirds are now in South and Central America waiting for summer to return up here.  Only the winter residents remain behind to search out and enjoy, but now a pale reflection of their summer-selves is all we get.

I was fortunate to notice one unusual bird on this trip though, a leucistic bird.  My older brother, Kenn, and I were driving down dusty Coffman Road on our way to the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in SE Arizona.  That area is known for thousands of wintering Sandhill Cranes, but we were looking for any kind of birds. My winter birding trip has been rather Bird-Lite, to co-opt a phrase.

There is no posted speed limit on gravelly Coffman Road, but being rough and rippled, common sense keeps you below 30MPH.  Passing a ranch house on the right, I saw two trucks, a man, a woman, two telephoto lenses pointed upward, one helicopter and a dog. None of those peaked my interest more than the two cameras pointed into the trees.  I invited myself in. 

Fifty feet beyond the ranch house, the man and woman were watching something in a tree.  I purposely stayed back, to avoid scaring away whatever it was, but I eased my way towards them eventually. Walking slowly and speaking softly, I asked what they were looking at, as I didn’t see anything special in the tree.  They told me, in unison, “Right there, on the dead branch, a female House Finch.”  
A House Finch, I thought!
A House Finch…common and boring…a House Finch!
Not so! 
Perched proudly in the desert sunshine, twenty feet overhead, normal in size, shape and proportions, but all white, a female, leucistic House Finch.

Five feet away, on the same bare branch, her possible mate…red faced and pudgy.  I never asked them how they knew it was a female, if it was all white, but I accepted their credentials as superior to mine.

According to Tom Whetten, the man on the scene, a retired Arizona Game and Fish information education program manager out of Tucson, this House Finch is pretty special. She was the first one he’d seen in his lifetime and I’m guessing he’s seventyish.  It was an all white bird absent the normal bold streaking of a female House Finch.  She’s even more than uncommon…she is rare.   

 This is a typical female House Finch)
 He describes her this way, “If it were solid white with white eyes it would be an albino, but because it has some color and the eyes aren’t pink, its leucistic. 

This was all new to me, so I looked up the meaning of leucistic:
Leucism is a condition characterized by reduced pigmentation in animals caused by a recessive allele. Unlike albinism, it is caused by a reduction in all types of skin pigment, not just melanin.

Okay, that’s different.  After I made all the pictures I needed, she flew away and we continued down the road.  I’ll take a leucistic House Finch. It’s something new I’ve learned today.  In January, when uncommon birds are hard to find, I found a real rare bird.