Birds in the News

Why Is This Northern Cardinal Yellow?

Yes, that is a cardinal. We asked experts how this redbird might have gotten its golden feathers.

Update: The Alabama yellow cardinal has shacked up with a red female cardinal in the yard where it was originally spotted. After raising at least one chick, the couple now seems to be nesting again. (This is typical for the species.) You can follow along on their Facebook page, created by Charlie Stephenson and Jeremy Black.

“If you see one cardinal, you’ve seen them all,” said no one ever. As common as they are, Northern Cardinals rank among the most-loved birds in the eastern United States (unless you’re a Chicago Cubs fan). The National Audubon Society should know: Our Facebook followers can’t seem to get enough of them.

So, it’s no surprise when a cardinal turns heads—except in Charlie Stephenson’s case, where that double take may have resulted in some whiplash. Back in January, she found an impossibly bright male in her backyard in Alabaster, Alabama. But instead of the typical ruby-red color scheme, this Northern Cardinal looked like it had been dipped in a bucket of turmeric.

After hosting the oddball for weeks, Stephenson invited fellow Alabaman Jeremy Black over to photograph it. The resulting images hit the internet last weekend, and boy, were people psyched . . . and confused.

Thankfully, Stephenson had already consulted Geoffrey Hill, an ornithologist and coloration expert at Auburn University. He told her that the bird probably had a genetic mutation that renders the pigments it draws from foods yellow rather than red. The condition he cited, xanthochroism, has been seen in other cardinals, along with eastern House Finches and maybe Evening Grosbeaks.

But that’s just one theory behind the bird’s wardrobe malfunction. 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.

Although this alternative theory is plausible, ultimately, LeBaron agrees that genetics could be the sole factor. But the only way to solve the case is to wait for the cardinal to swap its feathers. “Time will tell with this bird,” LeBaron says. If it sticks around Alabaster and is still yellow next winter, a mutation is the likeliest culprit. But if it comes out red after another molt, it means the bird somehow recalibrated its pigments.

As birds have shown over and over, there are always new plumage puzzles to investigate. Remember the half-female, half-male cardinal that made the news a few years ago? That turned out to be a an obscure type of hermaphroditism—a phenomenon that affects many types of animals.

For Stephenson’s yellow cardinal (not to be confused with a Yellow Cardinal), we'll have to see if its look is permanent. Regardless, at least it wore its golden feathers boldly. “If I fly or if I fall, at least I can say I gave it all.” That one’s from RuPaul. 

Purbita Saha is the associate editor Audubon. She really likes birds and people who like birds. Look for more of her writing in the Birding and Science sections, or in the front of the magazine.

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