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In Living Color

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Spring is when waterfowl dress their very best. Physical features, such as color and quality, help hens determine the fitness of prospective mates.

Color in birds is produced in two ways. These include pigments (a substance that creates color) or the physical structure of the feathers.

The two main types of pigments – the melanins and lipochromes – produce the various blacks and browns through reds, yellows, greens and violets.  There are no blue pigments in feathers. Blues and iridescent colors are the result of fine feather structure in combination with other pigments. A bird’s coloration helps in concealment, recognition, courtship and other social activities.

Sometimes minor plumage color variations occur because of a genetic mutation within the species.  One such color variance is a genetic variation known as leucism, also known as partial albinism.

Animals with leucism have reduced pigmentation in their bodies. The entire body often will appear as a wash of tan or creamy yellow.  In waterfowl, leucism most often affects plumage, bill and foot color. Color variation can occur on part or all of the bird and typically happens on both sides of the body. Leucism either is inherited or comes from genetic mutations that occur during development. 

Occasionally, totally white individuals occur in the wild. These albinos lack normal coloring because the coloring pigments normally found in feathers were not produced during development. True albinism means individuals have no pigment in their skin, feathers or eyes. It occurs in waterfowl but is far rarer than leucism.

Albinos aren’t common in the wild. Albinos in the wild are easy prey, because predators can easily see them. They seldom live long enough to reproduce and pass on their traits.

Feather Fun Fact: Feathers typically make up about one-sixth of a bird’s weight. Hummingbirds have the fewest feathers (some species have less than a thousand). Some swans, on the other hand, have more than 25,000 feathers.
 

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