NORTH – Just to say it’s scarce wouldn’t be accurate.
Unique? Sparse? Not even close, says a local bird lover and a South Carolina naturalist.
It’s an albino hummingbird – a true, white, albino bird that is as scarce as, well, hen’s teeth.
“I’ve only banded one of them,” said naturalist Bill Hilton Jr. “It’s more than rare.”
It was spotted about two weeks ago at the North residence of Teresa and Jim Salisbury.
“The first time we saw it, my wife was washing dishes in the kitchen,” Jim Salisbury said. “She hollered out ’Come here! Come here! There’s a white bird out there!’”
Naturally, by the time Jim got to the window, the bird had flown away.
Undaunted, Jim spent his afternoon keeping an eye on the four hummingbird feeders the couple has in their lawn.
“And there it was, just as pretty as can be,” he said. “And she was white, even her beak.”
The Salisburys knew this was something unique. The couple had seen many shades of hummingbirds but never a white one.
Jim made several attempts to photograph the bird which he finally did. He then contacted the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History in York, where Hilton is executive director.
One of only about 150 hummingbird banders in the U.S. and Canada, Hilton said there are two kinds of “albino” hummingbirds.
The first is leucistic, an all-white bird except for its beak, which may be a dark color. The other is an all-white bird with a white or pink beak.
“This is a true albino, which is the rarest of the hummingbirds,” Hilton said via telephone after being sent the bird’s pictures. “This bird we’re looking at is a ruby-throat, and undoubtedly, it’s a female.”
Naturally, a red throat typifies a ruby-throat. But a typical male, as is most often seen in the Southeast, has a shiny green back, a dark-colored head. Females are a bit less flashy in color.
Since 1999, Hilton has directed “Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project,” a cross-disciplinary international initiative in which students, teachers, and others collaborate to study behavior and distribution of ruby-throated hummingbirds,“ according to his Web site.
Participants in the project reside across the hummingbird migratory path from Canada to Mexico.
“I’m sort of the clearinghouse for hummingbirds. I’ve only gotten 20 reports across the country” of a true albino hummingbird, Hilton says.
The hummingbird specialist said only about half a dozen leucistic hummingbirds have been banded. Ever.
He has banded only one true albino, and that was near Durham, N.C., which makes the Salisbury’s bird exceptionally rare.
This winter, the ruby-throated hummingbirds will migrate, some as far south as Central America.
The chances of the teensy bird returning to South Carolina are slim to none. It’s albino coloring make it an easy target for predators.
There’s also a theory that the albino’s wing structure may be weaker than that of a normal bird. It may not make it across the Gulf of Mexico, Hilton said.
Meanwhile, the company of the delicate white dart is being enjoyed by the couple who originally noticed it taking a sip from their feeders.
Having maintained hummingbird feeders for the past 25 years, the Salisburys plan to keep the sugar water flowing for albino and typical hummingbird alike.
“We’ll keep the feeders out there until October, then we’ll take them down,” Jim Salisbury said. “We don’t want to interfere with their (the hummingbirds) going south.”