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Rare eagle flies the Klamath Basin skies

Bald eagles have seen a dramatic rise in population in recent years, thanks to conservation efforts, and while they're still rare in many other parts of the country, they are found often in the Klamath Basin.

One specific, local, eagle stands out from the crowd though, a rare species easily identifiable with an even rarer genetic trait.

One eagle calling the Klamath Basin home is leucistic, notable for its patchy coloration that often causes it to be mistaken for a different species altogether. For several years the eagle has nested locally, its location tracked by naturists and photographers and often noted by curious travelers lucky enough to spot it perching along highways.

Similar to albinism, leucism is a genetic condition that causes partial pigmentation loss in animals. This hereditary and rare trait results in a white or patchy appearance of skin, hair, feathers or scales, but not in the eyes. It results from a reduction in multiple forms of pigmentation, not exclusively melanin as in albinos. Leucism is more common in mammals than avian species, making Klamath’s resident leucistic eagle a rare sight indeed.

“I couldn’t give you an exact number, but I’d guess one in a million,” said John Muir, assistant Klamath District wildlife biologist for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We see melanistic traits in deer, it’s not uncommon to see dark or even black deer. True albinism is rare in any species, but it’s definitely more common in mammals than birds.”

During the annual Winter Wings Festival, held every February in Klamath Falls where avid birders and nature photographers from around the world descend on the Basin, the local leucistic eagle is an oddity that often draws curiosity. Most leave empty handed, but for the dedicated photographer a little luck and a keen eye can locate the leucistic eagle.

“We have made a conscious effort not to disturb it with hoards of birders/photographers chasing it around the Basin during the festival,” said Diana Samuels, one of the festival organizers. “In terms of birding ethics, we think it’s better not to publicize the location of this bird. We’ve been told it will not breed with other bald eagles.”

While avid birders remain protective of the unique eagle, it has affectionately earned the nickname “Blondie” among event organizers.

While ODFW and USFW dedicate much of their efforts toward monitoring populations of species, no data is immediately available on the number of leucistic bald eagles in existence today or the likelihood of the genetic trait continuing in the species.

It is also common for birds to change colors as they mature, leading to some misidentification of leucism in specific species. Muir explained that bald eagle species tend to have a period where feathers appear more white during the teenage years, resulting occasionally in misidentification of albinism or leucism.

“I’m not aware of any environmental conditions that might impact the potential of leucism to occur, but as an accident of genetics it does seem more common here than in other places,” Muir added. “I think that’s more a result of an abundance of bird life in the region than any kind of genetic prevalence.”

Muir noted that while the decline in bald eagles was well documented for decades, the recovery and conservation of bald eagles is one of the great success stories of conservation work in this country. The population is growing, and while still a protected species it is no longer considered endangered or under threat of becoming endangered.

“They have recovered amazingly well,” said Muir.

A rate leucistic eagle has become a bit of a star among birders in the Klamath Basin. [Photo by Larry Turner]