Partial albino robin

David Chapman

The bird shown in this photograph has caused much interest and consternation amongst the people in the village in which it was born.

The reason for the interest I hope is clear; this is a stunningly beautiful bird with a most unusual and striking plumage, unlike any other I have seen. The consternation was caused by the lack of agreement amongst locals as to what the bird actually is! My photographs helped to confirm the identity as a robin but this is no ordinary robin.

When a bird shows some unusual white feathers in its plumage we know it as a partial albino. Some would argue that it is incorrect to use the term 'partial albino' because something is either albino or it isn’t but it is still a widely-used term. The word 'albino' is used to describe a creature which lacks any colour pigments in its skin, or in this case, feathers. A lack of colour pigment makes a bird look white because its feathers are made from keratin which has a naturally whitish colour (the same reason why our hair gets paler with age). True albinos have pink eyes and legs; this is due to the red of their blood showing through their colourless skin, but this is not necessarily the case in partial albinos.

To see a true albino bird is very rare. Albinism is caused by genetics and the gene causing it is recessive so it needs to be present in both parent birds for it to occur and pure white birds are less likely to survive because they are more likely to be seen and taken by predators.

Partial albinism, in which just a selection of feathers appears white, is much more common; it can be caused by genetics, sickness, injury or even diet. It is most frequently observed in blackbirds, crows and starlings, probably because we notice odd white feathers more in these species; let’s face it we wouldn’t notice a partial albino swan.

Birds which suffer from a lack of pigmentation in their feathers don’t always produce odd white feathers amongst a set of normally coloured ones. Sometimes all, or a selection of, their feathers appear a little lighter than they should be; this condition is known as leucism. The final colour variation that we see in birds is known as melanism. This is the condition in which birds appear to be darker than normal and is caused by the birds having an excess of colour pigment. It would be a challenge to spot a melanistic blackbird but I do see quite a lot of pheasants with this condition.

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