At first glance, Keith Dirago thought he was looking at a common gull. Turned out, what he was seeing was not a gull at all, and definitely not common. He was looking at a white crow perched on a power line in southern Aroostook County.
The crow in question is not a true albino, according to Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist with Maine Audubon. Rather, in this case the coloration — or lack of it — is the result of a genetic mutation resulting in leucism. The mutation prevents melanin and other pigments from being deposited in the feathers.
Hitchcox compares it to finding a blue or calico lobster off the coast, but said it’s a more rare occurrence.
“It seems like once a year a lobsterman catches a blue or colored lobster and it’s awesome and people love seeing it,” Hitchcox said. “I don’t know how prevalent the white crows are, but we don’t see them often.”
In fact, Hitchox said he’s only gotten two reports of a white crow sighting since 2014.
That could be because being born leucistic is not in a crow’s best interest.
“It’s usually not great for the bird,” Hitchcox said. “If you look at other white birds like [gulls], they have black wingtips. The American white pelican is a big white bird, but with black wingtips and the snow goose is all white, but with black wingtips.”
In terms of wing structure, feathers without pigment are weaker than black feathers, Hitchcox said.
“Having the black wingtips gives the wing more structure,” he said. “The tips of the wings have the feathers that get the most abuse due to the rigors of flying or getting rubbed up against branches, so it’s a good place to have some structure.”
For the Aroostook County white crow, he said the lack of wing feather pigment means its feathers are going to wear away faster and could leave it incapable of flight. It can also make it an easy target for predation.
“My hunch is that this crow was probably born this year and has been sitting in its nest being fed and not detected by predators,” he said. “If you are bright white, you are easy to detect and the fact that this one made it out of the nest is great.”
Dirago said he was thrilled to spot the bird, especially after seeing a photograph of one a year ago.
“You could imagine my surprise when traveling down Route 11 in Patten and I looked up and saw this guy on the power line,” Dirago said. “At first I thought it was a [gull] but quickly realized I was indeed seeing the white crow in real life.”
Assuming the white crow survives the winter, Hitchcox said it faces future hurdles.
“From the bird’s point of view, imagine this is a male crow and is looking for a female,” Hitchcox said. “The females rely on physical traits to select the best one to mate with and this mutation is probably not one she is going to select.”
Still, Hitchox is rooting for this unusual bird.
“Yes, it has a genetic mutation,” he said. “But I sure hope it lives a long, happy crow life.”