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A rare bird emerges from the Rum Creek Fire – Medford News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News

Leucistic redtail hawk is recovering at Wildlife Images after being found near burn scar

Emma Mowery, a wildlife rehabber at Wildlife Images, holds a rare leucistic hawk being cared for at the facility near Grants Pass. [Courtesy photo]

A mostly white red-tailed hawk, rescued from the Rum Creek Fire and taken to Wildlife Images in Merlin, is still on a slow road to recovery.

Wildlife rehab experts remain hopeful the bird can be released back into the wild despite, as of Wednesday, being on antibiotics and supplemental oxygen.

The red-tailed hawk is leucistic — mostly white but not albino — and caregivers are unsure whether it’s male or female.

The bird was found last Thursday in the Sprague Seed Orchard on Russell Road in Merlin, near the Rum Creek Fire Incident Command Post.

According to social media posts about the bird, Operations Section Chief Jesse Blair was leaving the area and noticed the bird in a tree because of its brighter-than-usual coloring.

As Blair drove closer, the bird was struggling to fly and eventually landed on the ground. It attempted to run away instead of flying. Rescuers initially identified the bird as an albino red-tailed hawk, but Wildlife Images officials determined it was leucistic.

Leucism is a genetic condition that prevents pigments from reaching some or all of a bird’s feathers. The degree of leucism varies with a bird’s genetic makeup, but the eyes and skin remain their normal color. Albinos are entirely white with pink eyes and skin.

A different origin than leucism, albinism is derived from a problem with an enzyme called tyrosinase (pronounced ty-RAHS-in-ayse), leading to problems producing any pigment at all in skin, feathers or eyes.

Ben Maki, marketing and community relations manager for Wildlife Images, said the bird, which has more white than most leucistic birds, was putting up a good fight to recover from its injuries, which he said were “indicative of having been in a fight with another raptor.”

“There are some injuries on the bird’s leg, and its wings had been wet when it was picked up, hampering its ability to fly,” Maki said.

“The injuries are starting to heal, but the bird does have an infection, so we’re doing everything we can to treat it and minimize any added stress to the bird. Despite being on “oxygen assistance,” Maki said rescuers are hopeful the bird can be released back into the wild.

Maki said the bird, familiar to locals in the area, is easy to mistake as an albino red-tailed hawk because of having so many feathers that are without pigment.

“It’s got a couple red feathers on its tail and a couple on its head, but it’s almost entirely white. You’ll see leucistic animals, more commonly, with a patch here or there, but you won’t see them as often because those markings can also end up identifying them to potential predators,” Maki said.

According to ornithologist Alfredo Begazo, a one-time expert for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and founder of the website avianreport.com, one in 30,000 birds will be albino or leucistic.

Southern Oregon University biologist Stewart Janes, who writes a bird column in the Mail Tribune, said leucistic birds are pretty rare.

“I’ve studied red-tailed hawks quite a lot, and I’ve never seen a leucistic bird. I’ve seen some really pale ones that bordered on it. You can have varying degrees from a pale bird to ones that have very, very little pigment,” Janes said.

“I’ve seen them in robins, and birds like that, but never a hawk.”

Janes said the lack of pigment, making birds more visible and more vulnerable, is more problematic for smaller birds.

“It’s less of a big deal for a bird of prey that’s not really part of the food chain. Golden eagles will very rarely take a red-tailed hawk. A great horned owl would also very rarely do so. The biggest plight of a red-tailed hawk would just be, ‘Are they sexy enough to attract a mate?’ Not so much worrying about being preyed on.”

The red-tail is known as “bird 744.”

“We don’t name our rehab animals because, in the rehab world, it’s kind of viewed as bad luck,” Maki said. “We’re hoping he’s just passing through and we’ll be able to send him back to the skies at some point.

To donate toward the bird’s care and the mission of Wildlife Images, see wildlifeimages.org and click on the “donate” button.

For follow-ups about the bird, follow the facility on Facebook at facebook.com/WildlifeRehabEd

Reach reporter Buffy Pollock at 541-776-8784 or bpollock@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @orwritergal.