When is a Blackbird not a Blackbird...

No.: 
2012-03
January
2012

...when its feathers unexpectedly turn white? Hundreds of Blackbirds with unusual white feathering have been spotted in gardens, the results of a new study reveal.

Leucistic Blackbird by Dennis Simpkin 

Blackbird with condition typically referred to
as leucism

Across the country, householders have been seeing Blackbirds with strange white markings. The condition, typically referred to as ‘leucism’, is one of a number of plumage abnormalities to have been reported through the BTO Abnormal Plumage Survey, preliminary results from which have just been published.

In less than a month, the survey has clocked up nearly 700 sightings, encompassing more than 35 different species. Three quarters of records have been of leucistic birds and, of these, nearly half have been Blackbirds. Leucistic birds may be confused with albino individuals, but the latter have pink, instead of dark eyes, and only account for 12% of survey records to date.

It is not yet clear why Blackbirds appear to be particularly affected. It could be that they are unusually susceptible to the condition. However, being black or, in the case of female Blackbirds dark brown, any light-coloured feathers show up particularly clearly. Indeed, several other species with all-black, or mostly black, plumage have been spotted with white feathers fairly often, including Carrion Crow (49 records) and Jackdaw (40).

Leucistic Starling by Paul Pierce 

Starling seen in Prestatyn, North Wales

Many other strange-looking birds have also been seen. Of the 28 ‘melanistic’ individuals recorded, which have an excess of dark-coloured feather pigmentation patterns, almost half have been Great Tits or Blue Tits, with their normally white cheeks and yellow bellies becoming dark-coloured. Other fascinating abnormalities have included a family of four chocolate-brown Jackdaws in County Antrim, a Greenfinch with orange feathers in the West Midlands and a Goldfinch with an orange rather than a red face in East Sussex. Perhaps the most striking photo sent into the survey to date has been an all-white Starling, seen in Prestatyn, North Wales.

Dr Tim Harrison, of the BTO Garden Ecology Team, commented: “The diversity of species recorded through the survey is impressive, ranging from common garden birds, such as House Sparrow and Chaffinch, to less frequent visitors, such as an all-white Buzzard in Aberdeenshire and a leucistic Coot in Norfolk. On a handful of occasions, birds have looked so unusual that participants have simply had to write ‘species unknown'."

He added: “The most northerly survey record to date has been from Shetland, from where we received a report of a Blackbird with white feathers around its eyes, making it look as though it is wearing spectacles. The most southerly record has been a leucistic House Sparrow seen last year on St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly. If you have ever seen a bird with unusual plumage in your garden, please let the BTO know.”

To take part in the Abnormal Plumage Survey, visit www.bto.org/gbw or telephone 01842 750050 for a paper recording form. 

Notes to Editors

  1. The BTO Abnormal Plumage Survey is a study examining unusual plumage characteristics, notably pigmentation irregularities, of British and Irish garden birds. To take part in the survey online visit www.bto.org/gbw or ‘phone 01842 750050 to request a paper recording form.
  2. The BTO is the UK’s leading bird research organisation. Over thirty thousand volunteers contribute to the BTO’s surveys. They collect information that forms the basis of conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Norfolk, Bangor and Stirling, who analyse and publicise the results of project work. The BTO’s investigations are funded by government, industry and conservation organisations.

Contact Details

Tim Harrison
(Garden BirdWatch Development Officer)
Office: 01842 750050
(9am-5.30pm)
Email: tim [dot] harrison [at] bto [dot] org

Paul Stancliffe
(BTO Press Officer)
Office: 01842 750050
(9am-5.30pm)
Mobile: 07585 440910 (anytime)
Email: press [at] bto [dot] org

Images are available for use alongside this News Release. Please visit gallery or email images [at] bto [dot] org

The BTO has an ISDN line available for radio interviews. Please contact us to book an interview. Office: 01842 750050