Wedding doves were my first thought. Never thought of albino pigeons.

You know wedding doves — those white birds sold for symbolic release as part of a nuptial celebration. (Except, that’s not how it works.)

Anyway, I spotted three white birds in a tree in Minnetonka while I was driving west on I-394. Exact ID at 65 mph is above my pay grade. Turns out two of them were albino pigeons, the third possibly leucistic.

Albino birds are very uncommon. More often seen are leucistic birds, which have random white markings, sometimes a spot or two, and are sometimes almost white.

Albino birds have white plumage, period. Feet, legs, bills and eyes are pink. Albinos completely lack melanin, the color ingredient.

I stopped at the Wild Birds Unlimited store in the shopping center at I-394 and County Road 73 (Hopkins Crossroad), the pigeon corner. Pigeons come to its front-door feeder.

Debbie Jergenson, who works there, told me she has seen two white pigeons at her nearby home. One of those birds had flecks of color on its plumage. A leucistic bird. Hanging out with an albino? Maybe.

Many questions here: Were the birds related? What are the odds of two albinos hatching from one set of eggs? Pigeons usually lay but two eggs in a clutch.

What are the odds of albinos from separate families finding each other? Where did the leucistic bird come from?

I quizzed several possible sources about these loose ends, but got no good answers.

A couple of guys, even with an e-mailed photo, thought I photographed a dove, or perhaps it was a matter of nomenclature.

Check the photos. See the fleshy covering at the base of the upper bill? That is the cere (pronounced sir), a pigeon diagnostic.

Albinism is a recessive genetic characteristic. Both parents must carry the gene if the trait is to be passed to offspring.

An estimated 1 percent or less of all birds show any sign of albinism, partial or complete. Albino is the rarest form.

Albino birds aren’t often seen for three reasons. One, they are rare. Two, they are very visible to predators. Three, albinos have poor eyesight, making survival difficult. Absence of melanin also makes feathers weak, subject to excessive wear and tear.

Back to weddings: The birds released almost always are pigeons, homing pigeons bred for white color. Once released, they return home. You don’t buy these birds. You rent them.

John and Marsha Fredrichs have a local rent-a-pigeon business, Wings of Love. Their birds brighten weddings and special events. They lend grace to funerals.

“We couldn’t afford to do this if the birds didn’t come back,” Marsha told me in a telephone chat. “We put 500 birds in the air last year,” she said. “We lost two.”

She wants everybody to know that the birds being released are white homing pigeons. “We couldn’t possibly use true doves because they would die,” she said.

Commercially raised doves, honest-to-goodness doves, unfamiliar with the natural world, would starve or be eaten by a predator.

For as little as $125, depending on quantity, you can have “doves” at your wedding.

The Wings of Love website, by the way, uses the word doves. Some customers prefer that, Marsha said.

The name pigeon lacks cachet. Even when they’re snowy white.

 

Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.