Updated: August 17, 2019
Magpies are objects of disdain for many Edmontonians, despised for rude morning wake-up calls and a tendency to dive-bomb pets and children. But unusual and striking ‘ghost magpies’ living around the city are catching the attention of avid birdwatchers and passersby alike.
Ghost magpies are birds that, through a genetic mutation, exhibit imperfect albinism. The mutation means the amount of black pigmentation in their feathers is much lower than in normal black-billed magpies, giving them a distinct white-grey colouring and, curiously, blue eyes.
According to Royal Alberta Museum ornithologist Jocelyn Hudon, the phenomenon is highly unusual, and Edmonton could be called the world’s ghost magpie capital.
“They’ve been seen outside of Edmonton, the odd record of one in Calgary or Red Deer, or even way in the north or Saskatchewan. But there’s more in Edmonton than anywhere else,” he said.
Hudon discussed the topic from inside the museum’s natural history gallery, where a display houses a sample ghost magpie, juxtaposed by a normally coloured specimen.
The prevalence of the odd avians in Edmonton likely traces back to a single magpie that displayed the mutation many years ago, Hudon says. Over time, more birds have taken on the distinct quality or have carried the mutation, making ghost magpies a trademark of Edmonton’s urban wildlife.
“There’s a specimen at the University of Alberta going back to 1946. So they’ve been around for quite some time, and all the birds we see today are presumably descendants of that individual or its predecessors,” Hudon said, estimating 15 to 25 of the strange birds now live here.