When at rest, the hummingbird often perched in shrubs alongside the garden and kept watch over her domain. The Big Question, of course, is what species is this? All or nearly all white birds can be very tough to identify, especially when they normally wouldn't be white. This animal is leucistic, a genetic anomaly caused by a recessive allele that washes out or minimizes the dark melanin pigments. Thus, the coloration that gives us field marks that we would ordinarily use to help identify the bird are greatly reduced or absent.
So, as reflected in the previous posts, none of us were absolutely sure what species this was, with many, including your narrator, leaning towards a Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus. By this time of year, Rufous Hummingbird is about as likely as anything. Nearly all Ruby-throated Hummingbird - our common and only breeding species - have long fled for the tropics by now, and the hardy western Rufous Hummingbird tends to appear at the tail end of fall or early winter.
After Bernie and Dane obtained their amazing images, it was as if the bird was in hand, or under a microscope. A lot of the SMALL details that are very helpful in making a positive identification and which are quite difficult to see on a moving bird become crystal clear in these photos.
Fortunately, just to the north in the great state of Michigan, resides Allen Chartier. Allen is one of the few licensed hummingbird banders in these parts, and has handled scores of the animals, including rarities (in the East) such as Rufous Hummingbird. It was Allen who confirmed our first state Allen's Hummingbird (ironically).
So, I was able to send off plenty of detailed images to Allen for his opinion, and the prognosis is that this is a hatch-year female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Following, in Allen's words, is a concise explanation why this bird is a Ruby-throat.
(From Allen Chartier): "Thanks! These really solidify my view that this is a Ruby-throat. The shape of the tail is right for RTHU and wrong for Rufous. In most of the previous photos, the central rects (r1) are shorter than the next ones out (r2). In these photos, r1 looks very similar in length to r2. In Rufous, r1 should be longest. Rufous rectrices are also more pointed than in RTHU, and these photos show some very rounded, not pointed rects. I see no diagnostic shape for Rufous on r2 in the photos."
NOTE: "r" or "rects" refer to retrices, which are the tail feathers. The innermost feathers are numbered 1, with 5 being the outermost.
(More from Allen on tails): "And finally, take a look at the two tail photos I've attached and look at the distribution of white on the tips of the rects, especially r3. In Rufous the white goes mostly straight across, while in RTHU it is mostly on just the outer vane. The albino clearly matches the pattern for Ruby-throat. I have seen a good number of strong structural characters that support the leucistic bird as a Ruby-throat, while there are only a couple of subtle and subjective characters, none structural, that may suggest Selasphorus."
Finally, now that the identification mystery seems to be cleared up, enjoy some stunning images of this amazing snowy-white hummingbird.
The long-term prospects for this little gem are, unfortunately, not great. Allen tells me there are no confirmed records of a highly leucistic hummingbird beyond hatch-year. Being leucistic may look cool to us, but it is detrimental to long-term survival. Melanin pigments provide structural integrity to feathers, thus when they are absent, feather wear more quickly and are more fragile. Also, a bright white animal stands out and this probably ups the odds that some predator will snare it.
Whatever this hummingbird's fate, it sure has thrilled the numerous people who have been flocking to Inniswood to admire it.
Thanks to Bernie and Dane for sharing their photos, and to Allen for his hummingbird identification expertise. And kudos to the staff of Inniswood for graciously accommodating the snowy hummer and all of its admirers.