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Rare “White Sighting”

I ran into a friend of mine last week, and when he walked up to me, he was reaching for his cell phone.

Being the first week of deer season, I was expecting to see some photos of the big buck he got, but to my surprise, that’s not what he wanted me to see. Instead, the photo was of a flock of turkeys that he captured with one of his field cameras, but this photo had something very different: a nearly all-white turkey in the middle of the flock and the first wild white turkey he had ever seen. It was the first white wild turkey I had ever seen, too, although I have encountered a few rare instances where a hunter would bag one.

Well, the photo tweaked my interest, leading to further research and reading.

Of course, when we see all that white in an animal, we right away think of the term albinism, but this turkey had some black showing on the edges of the feathers on the wings. In true albinism, everything is white, and the eyes are pink due to lacking pigmentation.

The mostly white bird with the black edges showing up on some feathers indicated the turkey actually had a condition known as leucism, which is a partial loss of pigmentation, although all white can also occur. Leucism is a genetic mutation caused by a recessive gene that leads to the loss of pigment.

In birds, leucism only affects the feathers, and in turkeys, all of the brown will be missing, sometimes causing a gray or smoky appearance known as a “smoke phase” turkey. The reason for this is still unknown to scientists, but this smoke phase shows up in females in most cases.

So, just how rare is a sighting like this? Well, it’s believed that only about one in one hundred thousand turkeys will show up with this condition; I guess that explains why it is such a rare sighting. The condition of being white or nearly all-white doesn’t cause the bird’s death; instead, it’s the consequences that must be paid because it’s such a standout condition. Think about it; an all-white turkey would stick out like a sore thumb and become a target for every critter in the woods hunting for a Thanksgiving dinner.

By the way, the exact opposite condition can also occur in turkeys, known as melanism, where the animal is all black. While I have never seen this condition in a turkey, I have seen it in squirrels, which seem more common.

While the white or black turkey may be a rare sighting for most of us, more people have probably spotted a partially white deer or all-white deer. While albinism can occur in deer, more often, it is a piebald or a deer that has various degrees of white hair showing. I have seen three or four piebalds over the years, and I know of one hunter who killed one near my home not long ago. About one in thirty thousand deer will show up as a piebald.

Well, keep your eyes open for one of those rare white critters. In the meantime, like a lot of other hunters, I would be happy to get a good look at a typical brown deer with a good-sized rack.