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Northern Cardinal - Leucistic

(Cardinalis cardinalis)

General Information

The Northern Cardinal is a familiar resident of the eastern and central US, Arizona, southern New Mexico, parts of southeastern Canada, and Mexico.

The crest and bright red plumage of the male is unmistakable.

The following photos of a leucistic Northern Cardinal were kindly provided to us by Sue Huffer of Indianapolis who noticed this bird visiting her backyard. Note that the bill, eye and some of the plumage appear normal, but the remainder of the plumage lacks the red carotenoid pigments.

We occasionally receive inquiries about birds that are all white with red eyes (albinism) or with varying degrees of white in their otherwise normal plumage (leucism).

There seems to be a bit of confusion in the ornithological literature regarding the definitions of leucism, albinism and partial albinism. Some authors define leucism as a reduction in pigments of all types, but albinism as the absence of only the melanin pigments but the presence of the other carotenoid pigments. Others define leucism as those birds that have melanin in the body but not in some of the feathers, but albinistic birds as those that lack melanin in the body as well.

If this sounds confusing, this following table might help.

  Leucism Albinism
Possibility 1 All pigments present but in reduced amounts Melanin absent, but other pigments may be present.
Possibility 2 Melanin present in body but not in the feathers No melanin in body or feathers

Whichever the case, leucistic birds are not true albinos. These birds are the phenotypic result of a geneotype that results in a reduced amount of deposition of pigment as the feathers were developing.


 


Figure 1- Leucistic Northern Cardinal
© Sue Huffer


Figure 2 – Leucistic Northern Cardinal
© Sue Huffer

 

References

Gill, F. B. 1990. Ornithology. W. H. Freeman and Company, New York.

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology web site
http://birds.cornell.edu/ivory/pastsearches/2005_2006/stories_reports_0506/leucism

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