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Leucistic robin has 'Santa beard'

19/12/2012 12:12:25

This remarkable bird has been reported to the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Abnormal Plumage Survey. Photo copyright Ian Wilson/BTO.

‘Santa Robin' is timely leucistic bird
December 2012. This remarkable bird has been reported to the British Trust for Ornithology's (BTO) Abnormal Plumage Survey.

The timely ‘Santa Robin', which was seen by Ian Wilson in Derbyshire, is a leucistic bird. This inherited disorder causes parts of a bird's plumage not to have their normal colour and to appear white, often affecting areas around the face and on the wings.

Most common in blackbirds
It's not just Robins that are being spotted through the BTO Abnormal Plumage Survey. In total, over 1,500 birds across more than 35 species - ranging from Blue Tit and Chaffinch to Buzzard and Coot - have already been recorded in the UK's gardens. Blackbirds with unusual white feathers have been logged most often, with members of the crow family, including Jackdaw, Carrion Crow and Rook, also featuring highly.

Leucism (or Leukism)

Leucism is a very unusual condition whereby the pigmentation cells in an animal or bird fail to develop properly. This can result in unusual white patches appearing on the animal, or, more rarely, completely white creatures. 

Click here to see our gallery of albino and leucistic animals and birds

Most unusual
Some of the more extraordinary sights have been black-headed Blue Tits, red-tinted House Sparrows and a Goldfinch with an orange instead of a red face. On some occasions, people have been so puzzled that they have had to write ‘species unknown'. There is much more to find out about birds with abnormal-coloured plumage and the BTO wants householders to share what they see.

Tim Harrison, BTO Abnormal Plumage Survey coordinator, commented: "The red breast of a Robin doesn't just make it look pretty - it plays an important role in its life. Unlike most other garden birds, Robins defend their territories throughout the year and display using their breast to warn rivals to ‘keep out'. It is possible that a white ‘beard' could affect this communication."

Ian Wilson spotted this robin in Derbyshire. The unusual
'beard' is caused by leucism, a condition where some
pigment is missing. Photo copyright Ian Wilson/BTO.

Hein van Grouw, Curator at the Natural History Museum, added: "The most common form of leucism in birds only affects the body parts farthest away from the pigment cell's origin in the embryonic spinal cord - i.e. the face, wingtips, feet and belly. This Robin shows a moderate form of the condition and so only the chin and a few outer flight feathers are affected."

Tim concluded: "With the help of the public, the BTO Abnormal Plumage Survey is charting odd-looking garden birds up and down the country, with records extending from Shetland to the Scilly Isles. Please keep your eyes peeled and let the BTO know what strange birds you see."

Abnormal Plumage Survey
The charity is calling for more householders to look out for strange-looking birds in their gardens this winter. To take part in the Abnormal Plumage Survey, visit or telephone 01842-750050 for a paper recording form.


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