Robins of a Different Feather

Robins are one of the most familiar birds in America, famous for their red breasts; they also have gray backs. Male and female robins both have the same color combination, although the color is richer in males. But some robins have white patches on their bodies. Some have a white breast instead of red. Some have a white instead of gray back, and a few are pure white! These are called albino robins.

Pigments are the chemicals in our bodies that give us our colors. When a bird or other animal makes no pigments, the condition is called albinism, and the animal is called an albino. Some animals make normal pigments in parts of their bodies and no pigments in others. These are called partial albinos. Which robins below are albinos? Partial albinos?

Photos Stephen J. Lang
Photos Brenda TenEyck
Photos EvanHaworth
Photo JFBrown

Importance of Pigments
Pigments do more for feathers than simply give them color. They also make the feathers stronger. That is one of the reasons that the people who first domesticated ducks preferred white ones; they were easier to pluck. In the wild, colored feathers last longer without fraying than white ones do. Pigments in the irises and retinas of our eyes protect us from light. Without these pigments, people with albinism often must wear sunglasses. Birds and other wild animals can't wear sunglasses, and many of them eventually go blind. Fortunately, most albino robins are only partial albinos. With pigments in their eyes, they have better vision and can sometimes live as long as robins with normal colors.

Albino Robins: Not So Uncommon
For some reason, albinism and partial albinism have been recorded in robins more than any other wild bird species. One study found that 8.22% of all albino wild birds found in North America were robins. But only about one robin in 30,000 is an albino or partial albino. Most records of robins with albinism are only partial albinos, which of course live longer than total albinos.

In 2000, a Girard, IL, observer watched albino robin chicks in a nesting box in her own yard. She writes: "Last year Mama Robin raised two sets of nestlings, in the same nest, and there was an albino in each set. The nest was easily viewed from our breakfast room window. Our granddaughter first noticed the first albino, telling us there was a baby chick on the limb of the tree. Mama continued to feed it, but it didn't come down from the tree as the others did. It stayed on the branch for three days, then one early morning it was gone. I hope it flew away. We were surprised to see an albino in her second set of nestlings, but we never saw either of them in our yard after they fledged."

Scientists — and observers like us — may be more likely to find albino robins than albinos of other species for several reasons. People see more robins than most other species, so even if albinism were totally random, we'd be more likely to see albino robins than most other birds. Robins live in people's yards, where they are conspicuous and out in the open, and don't really need to blend into their backgrounds, so maybe albinos can survive better than other species that need to hide better. Robins don't migrate as far as neotropical migrants (hummingbirds, orioles, and others) do, so weakened flight feathers may not be as critical. And robins may make their mate choices using song and behavior more than plumage; in that case, albino robins would have a better chance of reproducing than albinos of some other species.

Try This! Visualizing and Journaling Activities
  • Imagine being a newly-hatched albino baby robin. You don't have a mirror. Like other birds, you probably don't think a lot about how you look, but you certainly notice how other birds react to you! Do you think you would ever realize that you look different from your brothers and sisters? How might you make that realization?
  • Write about some of the special problems albino robins might face in their lives. Think about their vision, their interactions with other robins, and their visability to predators. Do you think it would be easier or harder for a robin to be "different" from its family and neighbors than for a human to be "different"?
  • Learn More. See Who is That Masked Robin? Partial Albinism

National Science Education Standards

  • Each animal has different structures that serve different functions in growth, survival, reproduction.
  • Many characteristics of an organism are inherited from the parents, but others result from an individual's interactions with the environment.