‘One in a Million’ Yellow Cardinal Spotted in Alabama

Story at-a-glance -

  • A yellow cardinal was first spotted by Alabaster, Alabama resident and avid birder Charlie Stephenson, who says the unique bird visits her home’s backyard feeder regularly
  • Most cardinals have an enzyme called CYP2J19 that converts yellow pigment into red feathers
  • A rare genetic mutation can leave a male’s feathers bright yellow instead of red, a condition known as xanthochroism
  • It’s also possible that poor diet, stress and health issues could contribute to color variations, however if the bird remains yellow even after molting, the coloring is due to the genetic condition

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Cardinals are perhaps most well-known for their iconic red feathers, but in nature there are always exceptions. In the case of cardinals, which are typically either brilliant red (males) or pale brown (females), a rare genetic mutation can leave a male’s feathers bright yellow instead of red. It’s described as a “one in a million mutation” by Auburn University professor and ornithologist Geoffrey Hill, Ph.D., who told news outlet AL.com that most cardinals have an enzyme called CYP2J19 that converts yellow pigment into red feathers.

"Songbirds like cardinals almost never consume red pigments; rather they consume abundant yellow pigments," Hill told AL.1 "So, to be red, cardinals have to biochemically convert yellow pigments to red." The yellow cardinal spotted in Alabaster, Alabama must not have gotten that memo, as he’s been delighting birdwatchers with his striking bright yellow plumage.

Could Health Issues Also Turn a Cardinal’s Feathers Yellow?

The yellow cardinal was first spotted by Alabaster resident and avid birder Charlie Stephenson, who says the unique bird visits her home’s backyard feeder regularly. A friend and professional photographer Jeremy Black spent hours waiting to get the perfect shots of the bird, and managed to snap several striking images that have become very popular online, prompting a flurry of attention about what causes cardinals to turn yellow.

While a genetic mutation as cited by Hill could be the sole cause, it’s also possible that poor diet, stress and health issues could contribute. According to the Audubon:2

“As Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director, points out, the cardinal’s crest and wing feathers look frayed in photos. While wear and tear is a natural part of a bird’s life, it can be exacerbated by a poor diet or environmental stressors. These health issues could also lead to changes in how carotenoids — plant-based pigments that turn feathers red, orange, and yellow — are expressed.”

According to LeBaron, the only way to know for sure, aside from genetically testing the bird’s DNA via its feathers, would be to observe the bird again next year. If it remains yellow even after molting, the coloring is due to the genetic condition Hill described, which is known as xanthochroism — a condition that’s also been seen in house finches, red-bellied woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers and evening grosbeaks. But if the feathers turn red, “it means the bird somehow recalibrated its pigments.”3

Leucistic Cardinals and Albino Cardinals Are Also Beautiful

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing a white cardinal with pink tinges on its wings and tail, you’ve likely seen a leucistic cardinal, which means it has a genetic trait blocking the production of melanin, the pigments that turn the feathers different colors. Leucistic birds have patches of pure white on their feathers, whereas true albinos are all white with pink eyes (leucistic birds typically have dark eyes).

There are also birds that have dilute plumage — that is, in which melanin is deposited only at low concentrations, leading to faded or pale color that’s easily bleached by the sun.

On the other end of the spectrum is erythrism, in which a bird’s plumage may become abnormally red, and melanism, or too much dark pigment, which leads birds that aren’t normally dark-colored to develop grey or black feathers. Some birds even sport seasonal variations in color, particularly males who may have bright, bold plumage in the spring that becomes more subdued during the post-nesting molt, according to The Cornell Lab Bird Academy.4

Others have color variations that depend on their diets, such as in the case of house finches, whose coloring varies depending on the amount of carotenoids they consume. As for the rare yellow cardinal recently spotted in Alabama, Hill said, “I would estimate that in any given year there are two or three yellow cardinals at backyard feeding stations somewhere in the U.S. or Canada.”5

Where Can Unusual-Colored Birds Be Found?

If you’re interested in seeing some of these rare and beautiful birds for yourself, grab a pair of binoculars and head out to your nearest forest preserve for some bird watching, or simply make a habit of observing the regular visitors to your backyard feeder. If you’re wondering how common they are, according to Project FeederWatch, which allows people to report birds they see throughout North American winters, about 5.5 million birds are reported each season.

However, from 2000 to 2007, only 1,605 unusual-looking birds were reported — “a very small fraction of birds seen by participants.”6 In addition to color variants, this also included birds with deformed bills, unusual plumage and bald heads. Not all color variations are abnormal, however.

Certain blue jays will be darker blue than others, for instance, and that’s completely normal. A more unusual sighting would be a bird with a white head or patches of white feathers, or a bird with an entirely different color than would be expected, such as black instead of white or yellow instead of red.

In most cases, birds with unusual coloring are perfectly healthy otherwise (although in some cases it can be related to health issues or poor diet). However, they may face challenges with finding a mate or be more vulnerable to predation if their coloring makes them more conspicuous in the environment. If you see an unusually colored bird in the wild, take care not to disturb it but do feel free to observe it (and snap a few pictures) from a distance.

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