This stunning and unusual American Robin with a white breast was the highlight of our final day of banding for the fall 2009 season today. Our short, final week was not particularly notable; I'll be posting a season summary in a few days. Meanwhile, let's check out this very cool robin!
American Robins with abnormal plumage are not terribly uncommon. There was the funky orange-faced bird I banded a couple of weeks ago. I band robins with one or a few white feathers at least once a season. In October 2007 I banded an adult female in which nearly all the gray feathers had a frosted appearance (scroll down on this page for a photo). I have found photos of quite a few robins that were the "opposite" of our bird, with pale backs but normal breasts (in Minnesota, Saskatchewan, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Utah). However, I have never encountered or heard of a robin that had a completely white breast with a normal back, wings, and head like the bird we banded today.
Most of the gray plumage on this robin, which was a hatching-year bird (born this year), was normally-colored. It did have a few partially white feathers on each wing. Most of these feathers were short and/or deformed. On the left wing there was one slightly brittle short feather with a bit of white, and one mostly white feather next to it.
On the right wing, one primary was half white, stunted, and growing in this weird direction. About half of the tail feathers were also "messy" looking, due to some brittleness and twisting to them.
The only hint of orange pigment was on a few feathers under each wing.
This condition is usually called "leucism," which is an abnormal reduction in the deposition of pigment in the feathers. Some leucistic birds appear entirely washed out or pale if the reduction of pigment is roughly equal in all feathers (some authors now call this "hypomelanism"). More often, pigment is absent in only some feathers, and this is known as pied leucism, or "partial amelanism." Both the grayish-brown and orange/rust feathers on robins are colored by various types of melanin pigments.
There are a number of causes for this type of plumage abnormality. Some are environmental, including injury, disease, or malnutrition. Others are genetic. In the dozens of pied leucistic birds that I have handled, I have never noted the white or pale feathers being deformed in any way. This tends to make me believe that this robin's problems were genetic in some way. The bird appeared healthy otherwise.
This was the last robin -- the 391st -- of the season, and a pretty cool way to wrap up fall 2009.