Acquired White Plumage in a Steller's Jay

Photos 19 September 2004 © Bill Schmoker (except molt sequence photos © Fred & Georgie Kupilik)

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This fascinating bird has been frequenting a feeder in the foothills of Boulder County, Colorado (elevation about 7500'.) The owners of the residence first noted the bird in early July, 2004. At that time it was replacing normal-colored feathers with white feathers. The molt now appears to be complete, and the bird is almost pure white. The bare parts are pink (and were pink when the bird was first photographed), and the iris is dark. There appear to be a few traces of pigmentation in the tail and in the wing coverts (see photos below.)

This bird doesn't fit the definition of a true albino since it wasn't born lacking pigment. It has been suggested that the bird became white through a leucistic mutation. Others have suggested a non-genetic trigger, such as illness, trauma, nutritional deficiency, toxin, injury, or metabolic failure.

Whatever the cause, the lack of melanin production doesn't just affect the black areas on the bird. There is no blue pigment in bird feathers- instead, the color results from the way light interacts with nanoscale bubbles in the feather barbs (See a summary of Dr. Richard Prum's findings on blue coloration here: http://www.exn.net/Templates/Story.cfm?ID=1998111056). Apparently melanin plays a role in this constructive interference, or the bird would still have blue coloration.

Does anyone know about a reference or have knowledge of birds molting into white plumage from normal plumage?

Molt sequence (exact dates unknown- probably early July, 2004 through early or mid August, 2004.) Note that the bird had pink bare parts even in the first photo when it was still mostly blue & black. By the last photo the only blue evident is in the left secondaries.
White Steller's Jay, Boulder County, Colorado, 19 Sept. 2004.
White Steller's Jay, Boulder County, Colorado, 19 Sept. 2004.
White Steller's Jay, Boulder County, Colorado, 19 Sept. 2004.
White Steller's Jay, Boulder County, Colorado, 19 Sept. 2004. Note trace of barring in the tail, most evident in the center. (For a close-up click here.) Thanks to the input of several folks, I believe these bars are structural, not pigmented (perhaps a result of interrupted growth.) Also note the gray spot in the left lesser coverts- perhaps a trace of pigment?.
In this shot I believe a faint bluish tint is visible in some of the left tail feather webbing and in the right wing coverts.
In this shot a faint bluish tint is visible in the right tail feathers.
All photographs copyrighted by the author. Publication-quality 300dpi versions and prints of many of the images contained in this web site are available- inquiries welcomed- email bill@schmoker.org