A small, white tuft of feathers sits in the bushes on Virginia Tech’s campus before flying up to the branches of the tree next to it with its mother.
The bird is an albino song sparrow, one of the rarest albino species in the world. It was discovered two weeks ago in the greenery of a parking lot next to Wallace Hall.
“I wonder if he is deaf,” Kendra Sewall, an assistant professor of biological sciences, said to one of the research assistants.
She has a couple of reasons for thinking this. For one, the sparrow’s vocalizations are slightly off, a little different from what she expects to hear. She also believes it is a little old to still be living with its parents and the mom is being very protective of it, given how old the fledgling is believed to be. But she isn’t certain and said she could be biased because “the bird itself is so conspicuous.”
“There is no way to know these things,” she said Thursday. “But when you work with animals, you can’t help but speculate and wonder.”
Unlike a more common leucistic sparrow, where a bird is partially white due to a lack of different pigments, an albino sparrow is fully white due to the lack of a pigment called melanin. Other characteristics, as seen in this sparrow, include pink eyes and a pale beak.
An animal becomes an albino as a result of a genetic mutation. The mutation can only occur when the animal receives a specific recessive gene from both parents.
Sewall said while the bird is still living with its parents for now, it will likely leave in the next few days.
“Many of the young pairs are re-nesting,” Sewall said in an email.
Sewall started researching song sparrows five summers ago to study how suburban sprawl affects the birds and their behavior. So far their research has pointed towards bolder behavior in song sparrows in suburban areas.
“The birds in these areas tend to be more territorial towards other song sparrows,” Sewall said.
She said researchers at Western Carolina University have also found that these birds “are more likely to explore novel objects and new environments.”
Currently, her study focused on how parental care differs in this area. In particular, they are looking to see whether males in these areas are poorer parents because they spend more time guarding its territory.
Valerie Brewer, a research assistant in the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Research fellowship program, said the bird isn’t interesting because they found it but due to how they found it.
“It’s our study species, that’s what makes it cool,” Brewer said.
Brewer and the other research assistants started their field work at the end of March and will likely be done in two weeks. They had already moved on from the area the albino was found when another professor notified them of its existence.