A Bird of a Different Colour

I’ve written about robins. I’ve written about woodpigeons.  I’ve even written about watching birds at airports. That being said, I don’t consider myself an avid birdwatcher. Instead, one of the reasons I enjoy observing wildlife is because you never know what you’re going to see. It may be one of the aforementioned robins pouncing on an earthworm. Or a badger encountering a fox in the middle of the night (which I caught on a camera trap in our back garden once; the badger ran away). Or perhaps a floppy blackbird.

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Admittedly this behaviour does not leave birds looking their most attractive, but when the weather heats up this is a familiar sight in gardens and parks across the country as blackbirds bask in the sun. The wings are outspread, feathers uplifted, and they may pant or look like they’re in distress. However, it’s thought that this is a way for them to drive parasites out their feathers and spread the preen oil throughout their plumage.  The British Trust for Ornithology refers to it as sunbathing, but I call it “going floppy” as in, “Look, a blackbird has gone floppy in the front garden.”

At our old house, the flat roof of the extension was a favourite spot for floppy birds. A handful would gather there and it would look like they had literally flopped down from the sky, with wings out in every direction and their tail feathers spread so that the preening gland was visible.  It didn’t
look comfortable, but it was a clever location, safe from the neighbourhood cat or other predators.  At the new house, they don’t gather in quite the same numbers, but our bench has proven to be popular!

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While I had been aware of this behaviour for some time, I learned something new this past weekend about blackbirds.  They aren’t necessarily black.  While out photographing Chippenham for a new set of postcards, I came across a floppy bird with a white head.  The only thing I could think was that it was leucistic; a quick Google search when I got home showed that this diagnosis was correct and that it’s actually not that uncommon in blackbirds.

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Leucism occurs due to an abnormality that causes usually dark feathers or fur on an animal to appear white. This is different from albinism, which is the complete or partial lack of coloured pigment in the skin, hair, and eyes; an albino animal would have pink eyes.  The opposite is melanism, where normally light feathers or fur appear dark, such as a grey squirrel that happens to be black.

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While I haven’t seen any of the latter yet, this particular blackbird is apparently well known: sharing a photo on Twitter had several people replying that they had seen it around central Chippenham. Anything that can encourage appreciation for the humble blackbird is certainly worth tweeting about!

Elaine Massung Off the Beaten Track
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