Leucistic turkey spending winter near the deck

Northwoods Notebook

This wild turkey hen has a condition called leucism, which reduces the amount of pigmentation in some of its feathers. Even when completely white, leucistic animals still will have dark eyes, rather than red or pink like true albinos. (Submitted photos)

This gorgeous bird is not an albino.

The photos were

submitted by a reader in the region who said this wild turkey hen began regularly roaming their deck in mid-December, raiding the bird feeder. Of course it showed up just before Christmas — it has the plumage of North Pole species such as snowy owls and arctic gyrfalcons.

“One night, instead of going to the woods to roost, she decided to roost on our propane grill,” the reader wrote. So they padded the grill with towels, cardboard and rugs, so the bird wasn’t standing on cold metal.

Vanilla, or Ella for short, has been hanging out ever since. She’ll even tap on the sliding glass door to get the couple’s attention.

She’s made a mess of the deck, as those who have turkeys coming to their feeders can attest. They worry she might never leave, but “she seems to be lonely and, with the warm weather, is hanging closer to the woods, calling out.”

Out of caution, I am withholding the name of the couple that has this spectacular bird and where they live. “I am afraid to publicize her too much,” the reader said, “because we have had numerous comments and people asking if we are going to shoot her.”

While she’s safe for the spring hunt — limited to bearded turkeys only — both Michigan and Wisconsin do allow hens to be legally taken in the fall.

Let’s hope anyone who comes across her will realize what a rarity she is … and let her pass.

These types of wild turkeys are referred to as “smokey gray” or “smoke phase.” The Michigan Department of Natural Resources website lists them as “rare but not uncommon,” which seems to contradict itself, but okay.

They are not believed to have originated from domestic turkey genes. Nor, as mentioned, are they albino, which would have no pigment and red or pink eyes.

Instead, they are considered “leucistic,” which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says is not a mutation “but rather describes defects in pigment cells that are caused during development.” It keeps feathers from having the normal amount of pigment.

Fully leucistic animals will be paler — a gray or brown crow, for example.

More common is some degree of white spotting, from a splash or speckling to nearly all white. Wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson illustrated this variety of leucism earlier this year when she photographed a common redpoll with a white head.

Leucism has been documented in a wide number of birds, from penguins in the Antarctic to barnacle geese in Norway.

But it seems to turn up more frequently in urban populations, researchers say. Perhaps being in an area fairly removed from natural predators allows these oddities to thrive, rather than have their coloration make them an easier target, said Robert Howe, a professor of biology and environmental sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Some leucistic animals will show random white spotting or splashes of white, like this common redpoll with white head photographed in Quinnesec. (Phyllis Carlson photo)

He added that leucistic robins, spattered in white, have become fairly common.

This is not the same mechanism that turns snowshoe hares, arctic foxes or several of the weasel varieties white in the winter. That is genetic and seasonal, while a leucistic individual will retain the white year-round and show this spotting from early on.

Fungus, scarring or parasites might give animals a speckling of white that appears to be leucistic spotting but that usually is, to use a pun, easily spotted. And as with people, aging animals will get a frost of white or gray hairs on face and even body.

Breeders who developed domestic birds from wild species often prized those with such white spotting, which is why so many can be seen with these leucistic traits, be it speckled chickens or pied pigeons.


Now that the warmer temperature have exposed grasses alongside the roads and highways, it’s time against to keep a close watch out for deer, said Ryan McGillviray, wildlife technician at the DNR office in Crystal Falls.

Deer are moving more, but not yet headed back to summer grounds. Instead, they are seeking out new food sources, which can bring them in dangerous proximity to drivers, as the bare strips on hillsides provide tempting forage sites.

They still tend to travel in family groups, so the old adage holds true: If you see one deer, slow down and look for more.

Homeowners who feed deer need to consider as well whether where they live puts those deer in danger, McGillviray said. If anywhere in proximity to a well-traveled road, it could be setting up deer and motorist on a collision course.

The DNR generally recommends against supplemental feeding for deer, partly because it can lure them to cross roads more frequently and partly because what often is fed — such as corn and hay — is hard for deer to digest in winter, when its system is geared toward woody browse, such as cedar and hemlock.

As with fast food, the deer might be more than willing to seek out the easy meal, but doesn’t mean it’s good for them.

McGillviray also reports while the first bear has been seen in western Iron County, that should be an aberration. If temperatures warm and the bear is somehow disturbed it may rouse from hibernation, but most of them will remain denned up for several more weeks, especially sows that for now will have very small cubs.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.


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