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By Ed Robinson
As the wild turkeys headed toward the log where I rested, I froze in place, hoping to avoid spooking these wary birds with wonderful eyesight. Out in the open with no cover to shield any movement, I gave up the idea of snapping photos as the birds came closer. Feeding actively on seeds and insects as they walked through the forest, the birds kept up a continuous chatter of quiet clucks and purrs. Due to my lack of movement, the turkeys took no notice of me and continued to close the distance between us. As the birds came within 10 yards I noticed something was amiss….
All of the birds had the coloring, size and shape of hen turkeys, with long thin necks, tan and brown feathers. Yet one of the hens clearly had a beard of about eight inches long, albeit rather thin in comparison to the thick beards worn by mature gobblers. I knew that as many as five percent of hens could grow such beards but it was the first bearded hen I had seen in the wild. It proved once again that if you live long enough and spend enough time in the outdoors, you will see all kinds of strange things (ok, maybe not pink elephants, unless your thermos is filled with hooch!).
One of the most popular animals for wildlife watchers is the white-tailed deer. We are used to seeing these lovely tan animals in nearby fields or forests. If you are lucky, you might see a deer with patches of white hair that may cover up to 90 percent of its body. Deer camps often have old stories about mythical “ghost deer” misting through the forest, but piebald deer can occur as often as one in 1,000 births.
The piebald condition, common in species like horses and dogs, is caused by an inherited recessive gene and is not true albinism. One key is the eyes of the deer, which remain dark brown as in most other whitetails. Albino deer exist but they are born only once in 50,000 live births. It is common that piebald deer suffer from short legs, deformities of their nose or spine and possibly internal organ problems.
Driving to Wyoming a few years back I stayed overnight in a hotel on the west side of Chicago. In the lobby I picked up some brochures of things to do and places to see. A nearby town named Olney trumpeted itself as the “White Squirrel Capital of the World” (as usual I wondered how you prove such a claim, like saying you sell the “best clam chowder in New England”).
They boasted of having the world’s largest colony of white squirrels, around 40 of them. The local police have a white squirrel at the center of the logos on their cars and shirts. There is even a $500 fine for hitting a white squiirel with your car as you drive through town gawking at the rodent population!
The white squirrels carry special genes that trigger a condition known as leucism, where pigments such as melanin are mostly or completely suppressed, leaving white or pale fur. The squirrels at first glance appear to be albinos but careful study reveals that the squirrels have dark eyes rather than the pink eyes of true albinos.
Albino squirrels occur naturally in about one of 100,000 births, while white squirrels are more common. As an aside, the good citizens of Olney are concerned about an ongoing drop in the ratio of white to normal gray squirrels. In a report on their 2020 squirrel census, a suggestion is made to trap gray squirrels and transport them 10 miles out of town to a park, and to keep cats indoors since they seem to have a preference for white squirrel flesh. It was noted that volunteers are needed for the 2021 census so get your name on that sign-up sheet early!
For those of us who are old enough to remember real country fairs, it was not unusual to see exhibits of highly unusual wildlife or “freaks.” One of the classic displays was a two-headed snake. Many people have an aversion to snakes, but there is a weird fascination with the two-headed versions.
The condition of having more than one head is known as “polycephaly,” from Greek words meaning “many heads.” A creature with two heads is labelled bicephalic or dicephalic. While polycephaly occurs very rarely in humans and other creatures, it is least rare in snakes and turtles. In his studies of a two-headed anaconda, a scientist estimated the incidence of bicephaly in reptiles at about one in one million births. Most polycephalic creatures do not live long because of physical deformities, but a two-headed king snake lived for nearly 17 years at Arizona State University.
Sometimes odd animals can be stunningly beautiful, as with the silver fox shown in the photo above. This is not a separate species but a color variant of the red fox we know so well. The condition is caused by excess production of melanin. Many years ago I was fortunate enough to come upon a silver fox in the forest and I was blown away at the sight, at first thinking I was facing a wolf! These lovely creatures can be seen in a wide variety of color phases, some almost jet black, some shiny silver and others a muted dark gray. But in any event, they are a wonderful creature to behold.
Not surprisingly, at a time in the past when kings and queens dressed in beautiful furs to show their power and wealth, the pelts of silver foxes commanded huge premiums over other fox pelts, even those of white arctic foxes. Statistics from the early years of the Hudson Bay Trading Company in North America show that the incidence of silver foxes in the wild was as high as 25 percent in some parts of Canada. Scientists speculate that darker pelts provided the silver foxes with some advantages in surviving brutally cold northern winters. Because trappers and hunters coveted silver fox pelts for the incredibly high prices they fetched in the market, the incidence of silver foxes fell over time. Today it is estimated that at most one percent of wild foxes display this color variation.