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Southeastern Arizona Bird ObservatoryAvian Oddities

A white Sandhill Crane

A White Sandhill Crane (photo copyright Tom Wood & Sheri Williamson)

On December 27, 2003, Michele Nichols, a participant in one of SABO's Hawk Stalk Tours, discovered this adult Sandhill Crane with almost entirely white plumage at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. It was sighted and photographed numerous times through February 2004.

"Moby" is not a true or complete albino because it doesn't lack all pigment. It has a few dark gray feathers on its body, a little dusky color in its outer wing feathers, and normal-looking skin, bill, and eyes. Though white is the normal plumage color for some species of cranes, including the endangered Whooping Crane and Siberian Crane, albinistic Sandhill Cranes are rarely reported.

The bright red forehead is characteristic of adults, but the dark feathers on the wings appear to be natural pigment rather than mud stains typical of mature breeding birds, suggesting that Moby is less than 4 years old.

photo copyright 2004 Tom Wood and Sheri Williamson 

White Sandhill Crane among normally colored cranes (photo copyright Tom Wood & Sheri Williamson)

In the photo above, Moby appears much larger than the two Lesser Sandhills
nearest it but approximately the same size as the crane at the far right
(which is probably a Greater Sandhill, the largest of the three migratory subspecies).
Its relatively small size and lack of black wingtips (see below) make it highly unlikely that
this bird is the hybrid offspring of a Sandhill and a Whooping Crane.
photo copyright 2004 Tom Wood and Sheri Williamson

White Sandhill Crane, relaxed (photo copyright Tom Wood & Sheri Williamson)   White Sandhill Crane, alert (photo copyright Tom Wood & Sheri Williamson)
A Sandhill Crane's emotions are expressed in part by the size and color of the red forehead patch, which is bare skin similar to a chicken's wattles and comb. When the bird is relaxed, the patch is retracted to cover only the front of the head.   Moments later, when an approaching truck catches the flock's attention, the elastic red skin on Moby's forehead stretches back across the top of the head and blushes a brighter red.
photos copyright 2004 Tom Wood and Sheri Williamson
Lesser Sandhill Crane and white Greater Sandhill Crane (photo copyright 2004 by Tom Wood & Sheri Williamson)  
Above left, Moby preens alongside a young Lesser Sandhill Crane.  Note the size difference between the two as well as the young Lesser's  dull grayish-tan forehead. Greater Sandhill Cranes, the southernmost of the  migratory subspecies, average twice the weight of Lessers, the northernmost subspecies.   Above right, Moby in flight calling to other members of the flock as they settle down on the wetland at Whitewater Draw. The scattered dark feathers and smudgy dark wingtips show well in this photo, taken during a January 24 field trip for Liberty Wildlife.
photo copyright 2004 Tom Wood and Sheri Williamson   photo copyright 2004 Terry Stevens

Reproduction or distribution of these photos in any form, including electronic,
without the express permission of the photographer is prohibited by international law.


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