West End News March 10

Sawbill's albino chickadee
Sawbill's albino chickadee

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Back in October we were surprised and delighted to discover an albino chickadee coming to our office window bird feeder. In more than 50 years of bird watching, I’d guess that I’ve seen thousands of chickadees, but I had never seen and albino until this little guy showed up. We broke out the camera right away, but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to photograph an individual chickadee. It seemed to disappear as soon as we started paying special attention to it. When it finally came within range, it would invariably jump, twitch or fly just as the shutter clicked. But, with persistence, we finally got three decent pictures of him or her and duly posted them on our online newsletter.

It turns out that albino chickadees are relatively rare and our newsletter entry got picked up by a writer for the Duluth News Tribune and several other birding blogs. We quickly got several somewhat snippy emails from serious birders, patiently explaining to us that what we had was an albino finch, which are relatively common, not a chickadee. Being no expert on albinism in birds, I was willing to have an open mind, so the next time I got close the pale little bird I took a hard look. As I stared at the bird, less than five feet away, it opened it’s mouth and said “chick a dee dee dee.” Later that day I rounded up a witness and while we were both very focused on it at close range, it repeated the statement – case closed.

I have always wondered if the birds that come to our office bird feeders are the same birds that come to our house bird feeders that are only about 150 feet away, but not within sight of each other. All winter, Mighty Whitey was a constant visitor at the office, but never once did we see him at the house feeder. Then, about a week ago, a guest spotted an albino chickadee at our dining room feeder. It was a few days until we got a close up look at it – and lo and behold – it was a different albino chickadee. Both birds are about 95 per cent white, but have a little grey on the shoulders and tails. The beaks and feet of both birds are not exactly pink, but sort of flesh colored. But, the white chickadee at the house feeder has a distinct black dot on its tail about the size of a pea – unmistakably different than the office chickadee.

I hope both chickadees hang around, although I think the life span of the average chickadee in the wild isn’t too long. I would guess that white coloration provides camouflage during the winter – especially this winter. When the snow is gone though, the poor little guys are going to stick out like sore thumbs to the sharp eyes of predators.

Many people around here know the Gilsvick family from Two Harbors, as they have many connections to Cook County. Leif Gilsvik worked for us here at Sawbill last summer immediately after he graduated from Two Harbors High School. Leif ran cross country for Cook County High School for several years. His mother, whose maiden name was Patty Tome, grew up in Grand Marais and graduated from CCHS. His father, Dave Gilsvik, is very well know artist who occasionally teaches painting at the Art Colony in Grand Marais.

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