Rare white magpie spotted in Edmonton

Bird watchers are all aflutter after a rare "albino" magpie was spotted in Edmonton.  

CBC Radio listener Dwight Cain sent in the photo below to Edmonton AM after spotting the unusual bird in the Royal Gardens neighbourhood in southwest Edmonton.

Magpie

Edmonton AM listener spotted Dwight Cain spotted this ghostly bird in his neighbourhood this week. (Dwight Cain)

The common black and white birds are so populous in the city, they've earned Edmonton a dubious distinction of being Canada's magpie capitalBut birds of this colour (or lack thereof) are exceptionally rare.

The birds' distinctive colouring is the result of leucism, a genetic condition which causes partial loss of pigmentation in an animal's skin, hair, feathers, scales or cuticles.

"It's always a surprise to hear that they're around," said Chris Fisher, an Edmonton bird expert.

"In Edmonton, one wouldn't expect more than one or two hopping around our lawns at any period time."

Only a couple 'ghost birds' in Edmonton

White-chested and with grey-wings, leucistic magpies are often referred to as ghost birds, and their colouring certainly stands out among the squawking flocks of their black-billed brethren.  

According to last year's annual bird count, there are more than 2,700 magpies in Edmonton, but only a couple of leucistic birds.

Magpies

On the left, a normal magpie. On the right, a bird with leucism. (CBC/Chris Fisher)

"We have a very high population of magpies compared to most other places, so we tend to take them for granted a little bit," Fisher said. "The leucistic birds are a really good opportunity for us to take a second look at these often-overlooked birds."

Not true albinos, their smoky plumage is due to a genetic mutation, and their odd looks make life a little tougher for them. They tend to be picked on by other birds, and the males are often shunned by potential mates.

"The ghost females tend to do a little better in the 'singles scene' than the males do, but they do seem to be picked on more than other magpies," Fisher said.

"There is a pecking order in the magpies that make their homes in our neighbourhoods and ghost magpies are often right at the bottom."

According to the Royal Alberta Museum, "albino" magpies have been flying around Edmonton since at least the 1940s, and it's likely that these birds are all descendants of one individual where the grey mutation first occurred.

"We have a very high population of magpies compared to most other places, so we tend to take them for granted a little bit," Fisher said. 

"These leucistic birds are a really good opportunity for us to take a second look at these often overlooked birds."

Magpies aren't the only birds that occasionally display leucism. Although very rare, several pileated woodpeckers with the condition have been spotted in central Alberta in the past year.

Woodpeckers

On the left, a normal pileated woodpecker. On the right, the mostly-colourless bird Rita and Joe Milligan spotted outside of their kitchen window in March. (CBC/Rita and Joe Milligan)

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