Things Are Not Always What They Appear

All, Nature Academy
A female cardinal rests on a branch.
A female cardinal with normal coloring rests on a branch at Sharon Woods.

One day, you’re sitting and enjoying the outdoors, when a cardinal appears. It lacks the traditional bright red coloring characteristic of its species. Instead, it is mostly white with faint whispers of red. Your first thought may be “An albino cardinal!” This sight would be a rare one indeed, but upon closer inspection, this bird actually has pigmentation in its eyes. Animals experiencing albinism lack melanin, especially in their eyes (albino animals have red or pink eyes). What you’d be seeing at that moment is a cardinal with leucism!

Leucism is a genetic trail that results in the lack of expression of pigmentation in feathers, skin or scales that results in species appearing partially white or fully white while maintaining natural coloration in the eyes. That is, leucism can occur in birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Leucistic traits can be patchy affecting parts of the body (also known as piebald), or can be expressed over the entire body (which is rarer). Similar to albinism, species with leucistic traits can be susceptible to predation or not being recognized by their own species. Leucistic traits can be expressed differently as birds molt, and depending on leucistic expression in the feathers, birds may experience plumage deterioration. These birds may spend more energy thermo-regulating their bodies.

A leucistic female cardinal sits on a branch. It has brown and reddish feather. The bird has patches of white on its face.
A leucistic female cardinal spotted near Winton Woods. (Photo courtesy Jim Fenster.)

When watching wildlife, there are times when you may want to look more closely. It helps to have a pair of binoculars. If you’re unsure what a species is, try taking a picture and sending it to Great Parks for identification. As you explore the outdoors, always look closely at what’s around you, as things are not always what they appear.

Visit Avian Report for more photos and information about bird leucism.

For more examples and illustrations of leucistic traits in cardinals, visit Sibley Guides.

Zuri Carter
Conservation Biologist