The Curious Case of the Albino King

The last week of June was a pretty interesting one for the birding community when a member from the local Otterwatch group spotted an unusual white Kingfisher in a canal at East Coast Park.

Through the initial photographs, the bird was quickly identified as our resident Collared Kingfisher species which can be seen and definitely heard almost anywhere in Singapore. Does this species look familiar to you?

Naturally, many got excited about the sighting and flocked down to get their winning shot of Singapore’s first Albino Kingfisher. Pictures flooded online and kick-started a discussion to determine whether the bird is a victim of leucism or albinism.

Albinism vs Leucism

Both conditions may look similar but are vastly different. Melanin, a group of pigments present in most organisms, is responsible for giving colour to feathers, eyes, skin as well as hair. It is absent in vertebrates with albinism. These vertebrates would have pale eyes that are usually red or pink, and their bodies would be totally white. In contrast, leucism is the partial loss of pigmentation, resulting in the vertebrate being ‘patchy-coloured’ (but sometimes are completely white). The eyes however, are not affected by the condition. By looking at the eyes of this kingfisher, it is more probable that it is albino than leucistic.

We headed down on Saturday with hopes to see this unique bird (named ‘Fluffy’ by the birding community) and it was one of those rare occasions that we did not have to wait for him to show up! Photographers were already firing away as Fluffy perched on a low lying branch just across the canal. Unfortunately, due to the overcast sky, lighting conditions weren’t ideal and we ended up shooting in a light drizzle.

It was clear that Fluffy could not take flight and was struggling just to balance on the branch. The feathers on Fluffy’s tail are not fully developed which resulted in the inability to stabilise himself. The slideshow below shows Fluffy showing off those truly angel-like wings while preening! Simply gorgeous!

Upon hearing the calls of his parents nearby, and with great difficulty, Fluffy tumbled around and made his way to a fallen tree on the railings. Birders then got into position to capture the feeding. One of his parents came by with a freshly caught Cicada, one of the loudest insects on Earth.

Soon after, Fluffy coughed out pellet. In ornithology, pellets are formed by the undigested food of the bird’s diet and can include the exoskeletons of insects, plant matter, fish bones and fur. It was a pretty large one too!

Within the next 15-20 min, keen eyes spotted one of Fluffy’s parents hunt down a large Praying Mantis. The kingfisher then swung the prey repeatedly into the branch to disorient and keep the mantis from escaping. This was done to facilitate a smooth feeding and is a common practice with most parent birds feeding their young. Check out the feeding sequence below!

With more photos of Fluffy flooding online, we know he has been fed an array of vertebrates ranging from butterflies, mantids, beetles, bees, crickets, katydids, cicadas, small crabs, lizards and the list goes on and on!

It was apparent that Fluffy has an issue with his eyesight and difficulty flying. After we left the location, we heard that Fluffy had flew onto the cycling tracks a couple times and almost drowned in the water from the canal after falling in! Birders, Acres and other park-goers had to constantly watch over Fluffy to prevent him from getting rolled over by cyclist and to reduce the stress on the poor bird. Acres had also brought him to Jurong Bird Park for the vets to nurse him back to health. Further updates from avid birders were that Fluffy has since been reunited with his parents, feeding well and is looking healthy!

Impact of Albinism

The effects of albinism can be really severe in the animal kingdom. The lack of melanin results in the constant breaking and deterioration of the birds feathers and offers little camouflage against predators. Without the ability to retain heat, albino birds can sometimes freeze in lower temperatures as well. More often than not, albino birds also suffer from poor eyesight like in Fluffy’s case. They rarely survive past fledging but with the help from the community, Fluffy seems to be doing pretty well for now!

We can only hope for the best for this unique Kingfisher! Fluffy has also been featured on the StraitsTimes! check out the coverage here:

https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/environment/albino-kingfisher-chick-draws-birding-community-to-east-coast-park

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#birding #wildlifephotography #collaredkingfisher #albinokingfisher #kingfisher #feeding #hunting