In leucistic birds, affected plumage lacks melanin pigment due to the cells responsible for melanin production being absent. This results in a white feathers, unless the normal plumage colour also comprises carotenoids (e.g. yellows), which remain unaffected by the condition. Although leucism is inherited, the extent and positioning of the white colouration can vary between adults and their young, and can also skip generations if leucistic genes are recessive.
The reduction of pigment in leucistic birds causes feathers to weaken and be more prone to wear. In some situations this can hinder flight, which, in addition to leucistic birds usually being more conspicuous, can heighten risk of predation. There is also evidence that leucistic birds might, on occasion, not be recognised or accepted by a potential mate.
In our Abnormal Plumage Survey, ‘leucism’ is being used as an umbrella term to encompass a number of plumage irregularities that can be difficult to distinguish from each other. One of these is called ‘progressive greying’, which also results in white feathers. While leucism is heritable, progressive greying is not – but without knowing the history of a bird, these two conditions are difficult to tell apart.
‘Dilution’ is another condition that we have grouped under the category ‘leucism’ in our Abnormal Plumage Survey. Here, plumage colour often appears ‘washed out’ (i.e. ‘diluted’). This Collared Dove (pictured) is a good example of this. In dilution, melanin cells are present (unlike in leucistic birds) but produce less pigment than normal. White feathers can also be caused by chromatophore (pigment cell) defects, rather than an absence of melanin-producing cells.
Albinism also results in white feathers but true albinos are thought to be rare in the wild. Albinism is caused a genetic mutation causing an absence of tyrosinase in pigment cells. An albino individual is unable to produce melanin pigments. This leads to a good diagnostic feature with which to distinguish leucistic and albino individuals – the colour of the eye.
Albinos have pink eyes while the iris pigmentation of leucistic birds remains dark. Most albino birds die soon after fledging, primarily as a consequence of their poor eyesight, and albino birds are not thought to progress to adulthood in the wild. As with leucistic individuals, albinos can retain carotenoid pigments if normally present in the plumage. A common misnomer is ‘partial albino’ – this is not possible since albinism affects the whole plumage of a bird, not just part.
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