Bird Expert Tags Rare White Hummingbird
By Tom Embrey
Vacationing in Moore County, a rare white hummingbird caused quite a stir for a few weeks.
Wildlife experts on Friday captured the seldom-seen "leucistic" - or white - ruby-throated hummingbird in Hoffman. It was likely the same pale-plumaged bird they had spotted and failed to catch a week earlier in Foxfire.
Local bird expert Susan Campbell caught and banded the bird. She said this could be important to learn more about the unusual birds.
"The first thing is, white birds are very rare, and we don't know a lot about them," she said. "Second, we have a better chance of this bird being found south of here during migration to pick up more information as it moves from place to place."
The bird was captured at the home of Judy and Tom Tighe. Judy Tighe said she spotted the bird Aug. 7.
"It was really cool," she said. "We get a lot of hummingbirds here, but this one really knocked my socks off."
Campbell said it's possible that the captured bird is the same one spotted more than a week earlier in Foxfire.
"It looks to me to be the same bird we had in Foxfire," Campbell said after seeing photos of the one spotted at a bird feeder in Hoffman.
After it was captured, she still wasn't 100 percent sure.
"This could be the Foxfire bird, but I can't say for sure," she said.
Both sightings were of young, female leucistic birds with tan or yellow markings.
Karen Ramey told Campbell about the white bird after she spotted it in late July while potting plants at her Foxfire home.
"I happened to turn around, and there it was, about three feet from my face," she said of her first encounter with the surprising bird. "It just made my year. I got really excited - like it was my first Christmas. I've seen some strange things in my yard, but nothing like this."
Like "normal" hummingbirds, leucistic forms have black eyes, feet and bills, but their feathers may be pure white, buff, tan or gray instead of green or some other standard color. They are different from albino hummingbirds, which have no pigment in their bodies, meaning their eyes, beak, skin and legs are pink.
"Albinos are rarer than white (leucistic) ones," Campbell said, "but they (white ones) are still very rare."
Campbell said she has seen only five or six white hummingbirds in her time handling birds.
Ramey said she first saw the white hummingbird locally on July 27. She thought she had seen it or another white one last year and earlier this year, but she confirmed it only when she was out in her side yard potting plants near the hummingbird feeder.
Campbell spent two days at the Ramey home attempting to catch the bird, with the hope of documenting and tagging it so experts can learn more about it.
But after a few failed attempts to catch the bird, it stopped showing up. A few days later, another white bird appeared in Hoffman. At first, Campbell was unsure if it was the same one she had been trying to catch in Foxfire or a different one.
Late Friday afternoon, she captured and tagged the bird with a metallic-looking featherweight bracelet on its leg. She said it would act like a "Social Security number" that "is unique to the bird, and it identifies it for the length of its life."
The information is critical, because white hummingbirds seem to have shorter lifespans, according to Campbell.
"They don't seem to make it through a complete adulthood," she said.
Campbell attributes the shorter lifespan to the birds' brittle white plumage, which breaks and fractures more easily.
Hummingbirds are delicate creatures. Females are the larger of the species, with the males having a longer tail. Females weigh about as much as a nickel. Males weigh as much as a dime or penny. Regular hummingbirds tend to live three to five years.
Hummingbirds don't sing like other songbirds. Instead, they "chirp, cheep and squeak o communicate," Campbell said.
The time frame to tag the birds is short, too. Migrant birds stream through the area from late July to early October. Many of those birds typically stay for a very short period of time before continuing their voyage.
"Presumably," Campbell said, "our ruby-throateds are headed to Central America for the winter."
Contact Tom Embrey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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