Dear Bird Folks,
Please look at the image on my phone. I think we have an albino flicker in our yard.
– Donna, Orleans, MA
That sure is one bright white bird…at least I think it’s a bird. It could also be a bottle of Ivory dish detergent. It’s hard to tell from the photo. I’d like to see it for myself. Where do you live? Usually when I ask people where they live, they either pretend they didn’t hear me or mumble some vague answer. But amazingly, Donna told me her exact street address, which, as it turns out, isn’t far from my house. I headed over after work.
When I arrived I knew I was at the right house. There were flickers everywhere. They were on the ground, in the trees and in the air. In addition to flickers, there were also several Downy, Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. It was like I had found Woodpecker Woodstock. The only bird missing was the albino. Donna and her mother, Marge, came out to greet me and to say that I was welcomed to return and try again the next day, which I did. I also tried the day after that and the day after that, but with no luck. I even scouted the neighbors’ yards and was concerned that they might eventually call the cops. (That happens to me a lot.) On search day number seven, a guy (Rick) stopped his car to ask what I was looking for. I told him about the white flicker, to which he replied, “That’s Lucy.” (Lucy?) “She’s in my yard all the time. Follow me.” I quickly headed to the next street and Rick’s backyard. He was just as friendly as Donna and Marge. (I must be the only grump in the neighborhood.)
Rick and I sat socially distanced on patio chairs and waited for Lucy to arrive. While we waited, he told me that the white flicker was a regular visitor to his yard. He also told me that she had “a bit of red on the back of her head.” This piece of information changed things a little. It meant that this flicker was not an albino (sorry, Donna), but instead is a leucistic bird. Leucistic creatures have an abnormal amount of white, but unlike albinos, are not totally white. Rick explained it’s the reason he and his wife call the leucistic (lou-sis-tic) flicker “Lucy.” (Get it?) But albino or not, there was no visit from Lucy on this day either, and I was starting to get a complex.
I tried to find the bird a few more times, but then Marge came out to tell me that she hasn’t seen it for days. Uh-oh! Unlike most woodpeckers, flickers are ground feeders. Instead of drilling into hard trees for hidden insects, they would rather probe soft earth for ants. The brown and black barring on their backs gives them excellent camouflage from predators. But a white bird, feeding on an open lawn, is an obvious target for any passing hawk looking for a quick meal (or a bottle of Ivory). I started to worry that Lucy had become lunch. A less sinister explanation is that she had simply moved on. We have flickers on the Cape year-round, but in the fall many of them are migrants, stopping here on their way south to refuel before moving on. This would explain the Woodpecker Woodstock I’d witnessed weeks earlier. Here’s something to add to the confusion.
For years I’ve pronounced leucism, “lou-sis-um,” and many people still say it that way. But recently, I’ve read that it’s also pronounced “luke-ism,” like it’s a cult based on a Star Wars character (Luuuke!). Either way, it’s a rare, but not unheard of phenomenon in birds, and other creatures as well. Due to a genetic mess up, a percentage of a leucistic bird’s feathers fail to obtain the proper pigments. Sometimes the affected feathers are bright white, as is the case with Lucy, but other times they are off-white or even tan. A bird may only have a few odd feathers or be nearly covered with them, again, like Lucy. In addition to being a target for predators, oddly colored birds have another problem…getting dates. A bird with abnormal feathering is likely to be less appealing to a potential mate. Although for years, a House Sparrow with a white head (aka, Baldy) has lived behind my shop and every spring we see it feeding babies. This bird clearly has had no trouble finding a mate. But then again, it’s a House Sparrow and if there’s one thing sparrows are good at, it’s mating. And here’s something else.
As I was finishing this column, my home phone rang. I haven’t answered my landline since telemarketing became a thing, but without thinking I grabbed it. It was Marge. She said that the white flicker was in her backyard at that very moment. I yelled the news to my wife and we both jumped in the car. On the way over my wife asked how Marge knew our home phone number. “Good question,” I replied. “Maybe she used to be a telemarketer.” But whatever, I was glad she called. When we arrived, Frank (aka, Mr. Marge) met us in the driveway saying that the bird was around back. He was right. Standing in the middle of their backyard and picking away at ants, was the mythical Lucy, as bright white as I had imagined. I could see the red on the head that Rick had described, and a bit of yellow under the wings, but rest of the bird was all white. It was so cool.
We watched for a while, until the white flicker flew off. (It must have gotten tired of our staring.) I thanked Marge, Frank and Donna for being so generous with their yard and later sent some photos to Rick and Joan (aka, Mrs. Rick). This whole experience made me realize that there are really nice people living around here…and then there’s me. Oh, well. Yin and ya