Monday, May 19, 2008

Beauty And Tragedy Go Hand In Hand

In nature beauty and tragedy often go hand in hand. Some avian creatures are spectacularly lovely in their own right. Others acquire a magnificent beauty through albinism. Seeing a partially albino robin on the lawn set me to reminiscencing about other albinos I have seen.

The sad history of the great egret tells a tale of what is meant by exquisite beauty. This beautiful bird almost became extinct because of being killed for its lovely feathers, used by milliners to decorate hats. Other pretty feathered birds have faced s similar fate.

Albinism in wild creatures gives them a radiant but hazardous beauty. Science attributes this condition to a lack of pigmentation that causes a white color of the skin and of the hair. The eyes of a pure albino appear pink.

Usually albinism in wild creatures means high exposure, for they are more noticeable. Because of their beauty they are more apt to be destroyed by predators. Albinistic creatures have a reputation of being extraordinarily shy. Wild wisdom tells these birds they are different from other feathered creatures and they become wary.

In most cases nature gives to animals and birds of the wild protective coloring. To survive, albinos are cautious, more alert and usually stay close to deep cover. At least the mockingbird and brown thrasher that live in our neighborhood were extremely careful. Never once did I hear either of them sing. They were seen more often in the dusky hours of evening than at any other time of day.

The brown thrasher was not a pure albino. Its wings and tail were washed in light tan and its eyes were bronzy, not pink. Otherwise it was pure white. I never saw it out of cover, it was so unusually wary. It stayed in the neighborhood all that summer, disappearing during the winter.

The next nesting season a friend called to say a "white brown thrasher" with a natural plumaged mate was nesting in his yard. Though we had not known the sex before, we now assumed she was the same bird seen in our yard. She nested on his premises for two summers, then disappeared. As far as we could determine there were no albinistic young in the broods from the two-year nestings.

The white mockingbird was first observed eating lushish mahonia holly berries in our yard. He was not as shy as the thrasher, shyness not being a characteristic of the mocker, and was seen by several of our neighbors. He, or she, stayed around for four years. If the bird nested, the nest was never found.

Several years ago a brood of albinistic bluebirds were hatched at Silver Bluff Sanctuary. Both parents had normal plumage.

Back during the big snow of "73 there was a partial albino cardinal at a fellow birder's home. The beauty of it still lingers in my mind. Notes made at the time I observed the bird will give you a good idea of its beauty.

"The top feathers of its crest are pink, the lower feathers white. The head is white, black eyes, a rosy-pink bill. The throat is white as is the breast and belly. Its back is white with pink secondary and red primary feathers, olive shoulders. Out tail feathers are a dark red-olive. The inner tail feathers are pink. This bird is much more beautiful than a true albino."

Albinism in birds is by no means as rare as many suppose, but being shy because of their white color, albinos tend to shield themselves in deep cover for their own safety making it hard for us to know they are about.

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