Striking white hawk poses mystery to birders

It's hard not to notice the big white bird that sits or glides along K-96 near Maize.

It quickly takes flight when cars slow down and people try to take its picture.

Oregon field biologist Steve Seibel first noticed it last January, while home visiting family. He identified it then as a leucistic — or partial albino — red-tailed hawk.

He calls it a "zebra bird." And, indeed, it does look kind of like a small zebra in flight, with its distinctive red-tailed hawk feather band markings.

"With the few dark feathers that it has, those are interspersed against the white so, in flight, it has a striking sunburst affect," Seibel said. "It's far more spectacular than if it were completely white."

The adult bird is considered a partial albino or piebald.

Such creatures are born or hatched with unpigmented patches on their skin. A true albino would be completely white with a pink bill, eyes and feet.

"People are really fascinated by them," said Wichita birder Pete Janzen, co-author of "Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hotspots." "These birds are very striking and pretty interesting to look at. But in the scheme of things, they are not unusual."

Just fun to watch and, maybe, photograph.

"I'll have the camera ready and the sunroof open on my car and slow down and if I'm lucky I can get a quick shot before it takes off," said Wichita birder Paul Griffin.

He calls the bird a "white hawk mystery."

Is it male? Female?

A red-tailed or a rough-legged hawk?

He wonders.

His hunch is the big white bird might be female.

He saw it sitting with a regular red-tailed hawk who was calling the standard call. He thought maybe that bird was a male flirting with the white bird.

"You know, 'How about a date, you are mighty pretty with all of those white feathers, gleaming in the sun,' that kind of thing," said Griffin, who writes the blog "wingedthings".

The white hawk is larger than a red-tailed hawk, Griffin said.

Seibel said he believes the bird is a red-tailed hawk because he's heard it call.

The hawks are predatory birds, Janzen said, and show up every fall in Kansas. Some stay year-round.

If the white hawk is a migratory hawk, Janzen said, it might stay as long as February, feeding on cotton rats and meadow voles.