“Many photographers and birding experts that have spent their careers studying and photographing sage grouse had never seen or heard of a white sage grouse,” said Tracie Fernandez of Meeteetse, who photographed the bird on March 26. “I had no …
A greater sage-grouse showing off his rare white feathers may not attract many hens, but he’s certainly caught the interest of wildlife watchers.
“Many photographers and birding experts that have spent their careers studying and photographing sage grouse had never seen or heard of a white sage grouse,” said Tracie Fernandez of Meeteetse, who photographed the bird on March 26. “I had no idea the excitement my photo would cause.”
When she first spotted the white bird, Fernandez didn’t think it was a sage grouse.
“Then it began strutting, puffing out its chest, fanning its tail feathers and making sounds,” Fernandez recalled. “I thought it was a sage grouse, but it was by itself, so I thought it might be a sick bird, young, or elderly. You know, white hair and all, but it was putting on quite a show, so we all started snapping photos.”
Fernandez was with her husband and two granddaughters, ages 8 and 9, who were visiting Meeteetse on spring break.
Unsure why the sage grouse was white, she did some research online, but couldn’t find anything at all. So, Fernandez posted the image to her Meeteetse Cowboy Corner Photography page on Facebook, asking if others could help explain the bird’s rare coloring.
“The very first response I received was that the sage grouse was leucistic, which seems to be the majority consensus,” Fernandez said.
Pale-feathered birds with normally colored eyes have a condition known as leucism, according to the National Audubon Society.
“Unlike albino birds, which completely lack the natural pigment known as melanin, leucistic birds produce melanin but can’t deposit it into their feathers,” wrote Andrea Alfano in Audubon Magazine.
While the white sage grouse is rare, it’s not unheard of, said Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The department has received a handful of reports about leucistic sage grouse in the Cody area, and another white grouse was documented around Kemmerer a few years ago, he said.
“It’s hard to really put your finger on it statistically,” Christiansen said.
Compared to other parts of Wyoming, the Cody area has a smaller population of sage grouse, but a few more reports of the unusual white birds.
“That gene, apparently, is a little more common up there than I would say maybe the rest of the state,” Christiansen said.
Beyond attracting a photographer’s eye, the white feathers also make the bird stand out to predators.
“They’re actually pretty vulnerable, so a lot of times, they don’t live that long,” he said.
The bird Fernandez photographed has to be at least 1 year old, since he was out strutting, Christiansen said.
It’s tough for any male sage grouse to attract mates, even when they have the typical coloring. Only one or two male birds do the majority of the breeding at a lek, Christiansen said.
In terms of mate selection, this white fellow is likely at a disadvantage.
“The deck is probably stacked against him,” Christiansen said.
A leucistic hen has a better chance of breeding, as females don’t have to go to great lengths to attract a partner like the males do.
“Boy, if he’s out there strutting a lot, he’s making himself more vulnerable to predation and those kinds of things,” Christiansen said.
Initially, some people thought the photo of the rare bird was a joke, since it was posted on April Fools’ Day. Fernandez said she hadn’t realized it was April 1 when she posted it; she reassured the doubters that she had many photos of the white grouse and that the image wasn’t doctored.
Numerous commenters online — including those who have spent years photographing birds — said they had never seen anything like it.
“I’ve never seen a live one myself, and I’ve looked at thousands of sage grouse,” Christiansen said. “Just like not many people win the lottery either — but it exists.”
For Fernandez, it’s a thrilling find.
“I am beyond ecstatic to have captured, on camera, such a beautiful, rare bird, one that most did not even know existed,” she said. “It really is an amazing, wonderful world out there.”