Midway Atoll has seen its share of albino albatross chicks. There are usually a couple born each year. This year there were three, and during a trip to the atoll, wildlife photographer Rebecca Jackrel and I spent some time hanging out with them. Two of the three chicks happen to live right across the road from one another. These rare albino birds are growing up just about 10 feet apart!

The chicks are born of Laysan albatross parents. Albatross mate for life -- or at least, so long as each partner comes back to the island each year. So what is particularly interesting about these cup-of-sugar neighbors is that they aren't the first albino chicks to be born from these parents. According to a USFWS newsletter from 2010, albino chicks have been seen in the same area 3 of the previous 4 years. So the same two mated Laysan albatross pairs carry genes that result in albino chicks, and the pairs have continually hatched them.

Everyone calls these chicks albino, but technically they are leusistic because they don't have pink eyes. Lighter eyes, yes, but not pink. As handy-dandy Wikipedia tells us:

"A further difference between albinism and leucism is in eye colour. Due to the lack of melanin production in both the retinal pigmented epithelium (RPE) and iris, albinos typically have red eyes due to the underlying blood vessels showing through. In contrast, most leucistic animals have normally coloured eyes."

I'm no biologist, but Wayne Sentman is and he notes the difference. While they may technically not be albino, no one seems to bother dropping the "albino" label.

It might be a good thing that these chicks aren't fully albino because having pink eyes might take away from their cute stare. These darker eyes have a way of melting your heart with a glance. Then again, pretty much every chick has a way of doing that -- after all, they're fluffy chicks, so how could they not!

The cloud-white chick stands out from its darker peers. Other Laysan chicks are a dark greyish brown with blondish highlights around their faces and on the spiky ends of their down. But these three chicks are a bright, bright white.

You can see the difference right down to their very pink bills and feet. Typical Laysan chicks have dark, nearly black bills and feet. Mature Laysans also have important dark highlights around their eyes, including shading that looks like black eyeshadow above their eyes. This helps to cut down glare in the sky and off the water as they're flying. It is thought that part of the reason the survival rate for the albino birds is so low is because their eyes are already more sensitive to sunlight and have trouble seeing; the lack of this special coloring can't help matters.

According to the 2010 USFWS newsletter, two of the albino chicks noted on the island up to that point successfully fledged. But even now, none have been seen as adults. Laysan albatross typically fledge and go to sea for five or more years before returning to the place they were born to find a mate. If any of these chicks survived into adulthood, the people on Sand Island in Midway Atoll would have spotted them by now.

One albino albatross was raised at Sea Life Park, Oahu. Snowball, as it was called, survived for awhile but still died young. There is apparently a silvery tinge to their plumage after they fledge. For now, they're white as a cloud.

Considering 70% of the world's population of Laysan Albatrosses nests on Midway, it isn't too surprising that there are a small handful of albino or leucistic chicks spotted every so often. But the Laysan albatross species as a whole doesn't have a large population. It is considered a threatened species by IUCN as of 2010, which is an improvement over the "Vulnerable" status during previous years. Last year's tsunami no doubt had an impact on the population, though it is not clear yet if that has impacted the Red List status.


These chicks seemed to be in very good health so far. It is clear that the parents are doing a great job bringing plenty of food. That is what makes the inevitable early death of this chick so sad -- so much effort and resources are going into a chick that just simply doesn't have a chance. It does make us stop to think about how important it is to enjoy the moment, and appreciate these special little guys while they're here.
PHOTO credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

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