White hummingbirds may look beautiful to us, but in nature, standing out and being different are not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes these birds are albinos, other times they only have white feathers on parts of their bodies. So what’s the deal with these hummingbirds, and why do they sometimes appear? Following is everything you need to know about white hummingbirds, what causes albinism, and what it means for the birds.
What is an Albino Hummingbird?
The first thing to keep in mind is that true albino hummingbirds are very rare. Less than 100 sightings have ever been reported in the Americas. (Most of those were actually leucistic albinos, which have some white feathers amid normal pigmentation.) True albinos lack the ability to produce melanin, and therefore have no pigment in their skin, eyes, and feathers. Plumage will be pure white, but the eyes will be pink or red. Even the feet, legs, and claws will appear white or pink from the red blood vessels showing through the skin.
What is a Leucistic Hummingbird?
Other white hummingbirds have a form of albinism called leucism. Unlike albinos, these birds simply produce less pigment… of many types, not just melanin… which doesn’t get deposited into their feathers. That’s why their eyes, bills, and feet remain black. In fact, their feathers can be varying shades of “white” from beige to buffy, tan to gray. Many birds will only be partially affected, retaining patches of normal colored plumage amid the white feathers. Leucistic birds, while still fairly rare, are seen far more than true albinos.
Why are white feathers bad?
Mainly, because an albino or leucistic bird won’t live very long. Most die soon after fledging, primarily because they also tend to have poor hearing and worse eyesight, making it difficult for them to find food and escape predators. An easy-to-see white bird can’t hide among foliage. Without natural camouflage, albino hummingbirds are much more visible to raptors and cats, especially at night.
Melanin also makes feathers strong and durable. White feathers tend to be weaker, breaking during flight and providing less insulation. There’s also evidence that an albino bird may not be recognized or accepted by a mate. Other hummingbirds might even kill a bird like this that they perceive as different.
What causes abnormally white feathers?
- True Albinism: A rare, recessive genetic trait that prevents the formation of dark-colored pigment or melanin in feathers. It can only be passed on to a baby when both parents carry the albino gene.
- Leucism: The most common form of albinism, characterized by a partial loss of pigmentation, resulting in patchy areas of white feathers.
- Dilution: In these birds, melanin cells are present but produce less pigment than normal. Plumage often appears washed out.
- Injury: New feathers around an old injury site can sometimes grow in white.
- Diet: Nutrient deficiencies in a bird’s diet can prevent melanin from being deposited into a growing feather.
- Disease: Circulatory problems during feather development can lead to incorrect pigmentation.
- Old Age: While aging birds of other species sometimes develop white feathers, the phenomenon of progressive albinism has yet to be reported in hummingbirds.
What to do if you see one?
Take pictures! Despite all the odds, white hummingbirds do exist and are occasionally seen at feeders. If you spot one, get out your camera and snap as many photos as you can. Then contact your local Audubon Society chapter or a hummingbird group in your area to share your findings.
Looking for a decent camera?
The Canon EOS Rebel T6 Digital SLR Camera Kit is an excellent system for taking photographs of birds in flight.
Pair this kit with a Neewer Flash Speedlite to get clarity from super fast motion.
You’ll also need a portable, compact, lightweight tripod like the 57″ Rangers aluminum tripod with panorama ball head.