Living Columns & Blogs

Now’s the time to look for —​ and note —​ albino visitors who rarely stop by

Partial albino coloring in black-capped chickadees can indicate the bird was born in Alaska.
Partial albino coloring in black-capped chickadees can indicate the bird was born in Alaska.

The number of birds continues to swell as additional migrants arrive in our yards, some to stay and some to continue farther south.

It can be difficult to tell who is a resident or one that intends to winter with us. Black-capped chickadees that nested in Alaska look just like the black-caps that raised families in our yards.

Sometimes they do give you a hint.

As far as I can tell, none of the black-capped chickadees that nested in the yard or even nearby had splashes of white on their back. When just such a bird settled in with other chickadees at the feeders, it caught my eye and raised a question. Was this a bird from Alaska?

Many years ago, several black-caps took up residence in the neighborhood. They caused me to do further research on these leucistic birds.

One article I found mentioned that leucisim (partial albino coloring) in black-capped chickadees indicated the birds were born in Alaska. That would suggest this handsome little bird has probably moved here for the winter. This seemed the case with those birds seen years ago.

I watched to see whether a pair might nest in the yard and raise other leucistic black-capped chickadees. It never happened. Hopefully, the bird now settled in at the feeders will stay the winter instead of continuing south, perhaps only as far as Oregon.

A friend added another question to this subject. She had seen a very different-looking bird in a flock of goldfinches that recently visited her feeders. One looked startlingly unlike the rest of the flock. It had a white cap or patch on its head.

Goldfinches undergo a major plumage change when acquiring their winter coloring. They are very drab without any of the flashy black and white and yellow they wear in spring and summer. Gone are the males’ black caps.

It looks like the strange-looking bird traveling with that flock of goldfinches was a male goldfinch minus his black cap. His cap was white. When he was in summer plumage that white cap must have been very striking.

Partial albino coloring isn’t a seasonal thing. The white pigment replaces other pigment that gives the bird the colors we associate it with. Something in the bird’s heredity, diet or habitat has effected its coloring, regardless of the season. Was this a flock of goldfinches that nested in Alaska?

Hindsight is something most of us have in abundance. I know that is true with me. Many, many times in recent years I have wished I had done this or that.

One of these regrets is the fact that I didn’t save or record all of the photographs, letters, phone calls and emails that reported a partial albino bird. This condition isn’t discriminatory, but effects many different bird species.

When a specimen arrives at your feeders, it’s a big surprise. The bird is exotic-looking. “What kind of a bird is it? I’ve never seen one around here before.” Those are the some of the questions such a sighting triggers.

There are among this column’s readers those who have seen one of these distinctive birds. This thought has created another question for me. “Do most sightings occur in the fall and winter?”

Right now, while northern visitors are making appearances in the Northwest, is a good time to make note of this. I’m definitely keeping an eye on that black-capped chickadee that appears to have settled in for the season.

Do you have a leucistc bird story?

Write to Joan Carson at P.O. Box 217, Poulsbo, WA 98370. Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Or send an email to