Birds of a different feather – Why do they look like that?

May 14, 2024 | Featured, Ottawa Outdoors | 0 comments

As thousands of birders head into the woods this month for the annual spring migration, they may spot something that causes them to make a doubletake. Sometimes, something just isn’t right amongst the trees.

Every once in a while, a bird shows up that is so abnormal that the birdwatcher questions their identifications skills. Below are a few abnormalities a birder may encounter on the trail.

Jeff Schill of Port Clinton took these photos of a leucistic American Robin at East Harbor State Park. (Photos by Jeff Schill)

Leucistic American Robin

Avid local bird Jeff Schill first encountered a leucistic American Robin while birding at East Harbor State Park in 2022. The bird, whom he affectionally nicknamed Lucy, was mottled with white feathers amidst its normal dark streaks and rust-colored belly. Thankfully, the bird is not sick. The discoloration is due to genetic mutations.

According to the Audubon Society, leucism is a

condition in which genetic mutations eliminate color in a bird’s feathers. Pigments are prevented from reaching a portion or all of the bird’s feathers, so the discoloration may occur in spots or across the bird’s entire body. Leucism is distinct from albinism, a more commonly-recognized condition in which an enzyme affects melanin, causing an animal to be completely white with pink eyes and skin.

Lucy appears happy and healthy, and Schill was thrilled to catch photos of her once again this spring.

This Red-winged Blackbird has Avian Pox, a highly contagious disease which causes wart-like lesions. (Photo by Sheri Trusty)

Avian Pox on a Red-winged Blackbird

This Red-winged Blackbird, spotted in a backyard in 2022, unfortunately contracted Avian Pox, a disease caused by the avipoxvirus, which causes wart-like growths on the unfeathered parts of a bird. Occasionally, the lesions appear in the mouth, larynx or trachea. Avian Pox has been identified in birds around the world.

Avian Pox can be transmitted to birds by mosquitos or by direct contact with an infected bird. According to information from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Avian Pox is highly contagious, and there is no known treatment for the wild bird population. If an infected bird is spotted at a backyard feeder, the feeder should be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized to prevent spread to other birds.

Black Vultures sometimes confuse birders, who are more familiar with the bird’s more common cousins, the Turkey Vulture. (Photo by Sheri Trusty)

Mistaken Identity – Black Vulture

Sometimes, a birder encounters a species that makes them think, “I know you. I just don’t know who you are.” The bird looks familiar, but something just isn’t right. That may occur when birders spot a Black Vulture, which looks similar to its better-known cousin, the Turkey Vulture. While Turkey Vulture’s red heads make them highly recognizable, Black Vultures are almost entirely black and sport bare, black heads. Black Vultures are common in southern states but are being spotted more and more in Ohio.

Black Vultures eat carrion almost exclusively, but they will occasionally kill small animals such as skunks and opossums. They are considered nuisance birds by livestock farmers because of their ability to kill young pigs, lambs and calves.

Unlike Turkey Vultures, who have a strongly developed sense of smell, Black Vultures must rely on eyesight – and the ability to elbow their way onto a carcass – to find food. Because their weak sense of smell makes it difficult to find carrion from far away, Black Vultures keep an eye on Turkey Vultures and follow them to food sources. By working together, flocks of Black Vultures can force a Turkey Vulture away from a carcass and take over its meal.

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