When you think of a crow, you think of an all-black bird, right? Is it a blackbird, though? And can it have white on its wings?
Crows are Corvids, and Blackbirds are Icteridae, but what about white-winged crows? What are they?
Let’s talk about the kind of bird you might possibly have seen if you recently observed a mostly-black bird with white wings or patches. Most typically, these are depigmented crows, which means that they are traditionally black crows that have lost their coloring and now have white patches on their wings or bodies.
However, there are a few other options, including the Magpie, the White-Winged Robin, and the Lark Bunting.
Why Do Some Birds Have Unusual Feather Coloration?
Any bird can experience depigmentation.
Pigmentation issues are common in birds, and these abnormalities can occur for a number of reasons. Sometimes, they have too much pigmentation, whereas other times, they lose pigmentation. This can happen over time or be present throughout the individual bird’s life.
The most common types of pigmentation issues are:
- Albinism, in which a bird lacks all normal pigmentation in its feathers, skin, eyes, and bill. This is an all-white bird that may have areas of bare, unfeathered skin.
- Leucism, in which a bird could have as little as one white feather or as much as a mostly-white appearance. This used to be called “partial albinism”.
- Dilution occurs when a bird has a decreased amount of pigmentation, but there is still some. These birds look like more muted versions of others in their species.
- Melanism is the presence of melanins, which turn lighter feathers to turn dark brown or black. This is pretty rare – even rarer than albinism or leucism.
- Fright molt is marked by an all-white tail. It tends to occur after a predator nearly kills a bird, and it loses most of its tail feathers. Sometimes, the tail feathers grow back white instead of their usual color.
What Kind of Crows Have White Wings?
White-winged crows are actually just regular crows that are experiencing one of the previously explored conditions.
In North America, there are a few different kinds of crows, all of which could have white wings:
- The American Crow
- The Fish Crow
- The Hooded Crow
- The Northwestern Crow
- The Tamaupilus Crow
- The Rook
The crow most likely to be described as being white-winged without experiencing pigmentation issues is the Hooded Crow.
At first glance, this crow could be perceived as being black and white. However, upon closer inspection, you’ll see that the crow is actually gray and black – and the wings are actually all black.
Additionally, Hooded Crows are rarely found in North America. When they are found here, it is usually because they have escaped captivity. They are quite common in Europe.
How Rare Are White Crows?
American Crows experience depigmentation quite regularly. Leucism is more common than albinism, though.
Kevin McGowan from Cornell writes: “‘Albinism’ or some problem with pigment production can be arrived at in a number of ways, many of them quite distinct from each other. You can think of any complex, enzyme and protein-mediated process rather like starting your car. Many things can go wrong, all of which result in you not being able to start your car. You may not have the key, the battery may be dead, the distributor cap may be missing, the car may be out of gas, etc. Similarly, many factors can interfere with the proper distribution of pigment in the feathers of birds, resulting in white instead. The problems can be localized in time and location (e.g., a damaged cell bed or a short-term poisoning), and result in white in restricted areas, such as the crow illustrated above. If the problem is more basic (e.g., a genetic mutation) or occurs earlier in development, the entire bird can be affected.”
Other Black Birds with White Wings
Depigmented crows are not the only black birds with white wings in North America or around the world. The two most common black birds with white wings in North America are the Black-Billed Magpie and the Lark Bunting.
In Europe, you’ll also see other Magpies and the White-Winged Robin.
Black-billed Magpies are jays, not corvids.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the Black-billed Magpie like this:
“Black-billed Magpies are familiar and entertaining birds of western North America. They sit on fenceposts and road signs or flap across rangelands, their white wing patches flashing and their very long tails trailing behind them. This large, flashy relative of jays and crows is a social creature, gathering in numbers to feed at carrion. They’re also vocal birds and keep up a regular stream of raucous or querulous calls.”
Other facts about the Black-billed Magpie:
- It can take up to 40 days to build a Black-billed Magpie nest.
- These smart little birds will steal food from people – this was even documented on the Lewis & Clark expedition.
- They consume significant numbers of ticks off large mammals like moose and deer.
Although Lark Bunting females are streaky brown birds who look almost nothing like crows, males are all-black except for a white patch on their wings. Their silhouette is very different from a crow’s, but their coloring is comparable.
Here’s the Lark Bunting’s description from Cornell:
“North America is home to many handsome sparrows, but Lark Buntings are among the most striking: breeding males are velvety black with snow-white wing coverts and fine white edges to the innermost flight feathers (the tertials). Females, immatures, and nonbreeding males are sandy brown but also have white in the wing, most apparent when the birds are flying. In their preferred grassland habitats, they feed among other sparrows or with quail, often near road edges and often in flocks.”
Other facts about the Lark Bunting:
- When males can’t find a mate, they will sometimes become “nest helpers,” who support females by bringing food to the babies.
- They are notoriously tough little birds who can go a surprising amount of time without food or water.
- They have no relation to larks.