Peggy Guthrie of rural Long Grove, Iowa, snapped this photo of an unusual female northern cardinal sitting in her weeping mulberry tree.
I forwarded it to Steve Hager, an associate professor of biology at Augustana College in Rock Island, and he immediately identified the bird as “leucistic,” a condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents melanin, a brownish-black pigment, from being deposited normally on feathers.
Leucism comes in two main varieties: Paleness, or an equal reduction of melanin in all feathers, and pied, an absence of melanin in some feathers, creating white patches, which is the situation with this cardinal.
A website operated by Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. — the place for bird research — calls this condition “relatively unusual.” Among 5.5 million birds recorded on its FeederWatch program, less than 1,000 are leucistic.
“If you are ever fortunate enough to see one of these oddly plumaged birds, consider yourself lucky!” the website states.
Guthrie, a senior claims specialist for EMC Insurance in Davenport, says her son sighted the bird first on Dec. 20 — but then it flew away. She watched for two hours and finally was rewarded with a return visit. But only once.
What about the bilateral gyandromorph?
The sighting brings to mind the story from two years ago when Bob Motz of Rock Island sighted a two-toned cardinal in his yard. The bird was half-male (bright red) and half-female (buff brown).
Such an anomaly — bilateral gyandromorphism — is extremely rare, and two scientists were excited to follow up with attempts to study the bird.
Brian Peer, a Bettendorf ornithologist who teaches at Western Illinois University in Macomb, hoped to catch the bird in a fine-mesh “mist net” so he could take blood, feather and toenail samples for genetic analysis.
Peer’s post-doctoral adviser, Robert Fleischer, a conservation geneticist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., was also interested.
Unfortunately, despite about eight tries a year ago this time, Peer was not able to catch the bird, Motz said.
And now it appears the bird is gone. It stopped visiting Motz’s feeder last spring (as usual), but it did not return this past fall (not usual).
“I am suspecting that it met its demise,” said Motz, a naturalist and former Rock Island High School biology teacher.
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Visiting the Cornell University website brought me in touch with Project FeederWatch, a citizen-scientist project in which people across the country survey birds at feeders over the winter and report their results to Cornell.
This helps scientists track broad-scale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends. It also alerts them to unusual birds, such as the cardinals described above.
There is a $15 annual participation fee to cover materials; you get instructions, a bird identification poster, a wall calendar, a guide to bird feeding, a tally sheet and a subscription to the BirdScope, the Lab of Ornithology newsletter. The fee also helps pay for administration of the program.
You may join at any time of year, but the last day to sign up for this season is Feb. 28. The recording period is from the second Saturday in November through the first Friday in April.
For more information, go to www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw.