Yellow Northern Cardinal?

There’s been quite a buzz the last few weeks in the bird world about this picture:

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Yellow Northern Cardinal (Image by Jeremy Black)

Nope, that’s not Photo-shopped. That is a real yellow Northern Cardinal.

The story of this cardinal began back in January, when it was spotted by birdwatcher Charlie Stephenson of Alabaster, Alabama. She was looking at her feeder when she noticed a yellow bird, but did not realized right away that it was a Northern Cardinal.

So she contacted ornithologist Geoffrey Hill of Auburn University and her friend, photographer Jeremy Black, to take pictures of this rarity. The cardinal stuck around Stephenson’s yard for a few weeks. At the end of February the photo of the cardinal went viral on Facebook.

So how exactly did this Northern Cardinal, which is normal red, become yellow?

Pigments are found in both plants and animals. In birds, pigments are found independent of feather structure. There are three pigment groups found in birds: carotenoids, porphyrines, and melanin.

Carotenoids are responsible for pigments found in birds that are yellow, red, and orange. Since carotenoids are produced by plants, birds with these pigments get them by ingesting plant material or something that ate the plant material. The quality of a bird’s diet plays a role in how brightly-colored feathers are. Birds with a poor diet will be paler in pigments than a bird with a richer diet. A theory from some scientist and birders is that diet as well as environmental factors may be affecting this cardinal’s color.

Ornithologist Geoffrey Hill believes that the yellow cardinal has xanthochroism. This is a genetic mutation where the carotenoid pigments being drawn in by the bird’s diet are yellow instead of red. Xanthochroism has been seen in other birds such as House Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, and other Northern Cardinals.

Whether the cardinal’s color is due to genetics, environmental factors, or diet, it really is quite beautiful. It’s certainly a very special and lovely sight to see.

Have you ever seen a bird that was a different color than it was supposed to be? Tell me about it in the comments. 

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The Cardinal Family

This post is not about Northern Cardinals, it’s about Cardinals.

Wait…what? That was probably your reaction, but it’s true: this post is about Cardinals, not Northern Cardinals.

Let’s backtrack for a moment. What do you think of when someone says the word “cardinal”? You probably think of a handsome bright red male with a black face and red bill or a beautiful reddish-brown female with a red-orange bill. Right?

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Cardinal Pair (Image via fanpop.com)

The cardinal we’re most familiar with is the Northern Cardinal, of which I described above. But what if I told you that the Northern Cardinal is not the only cardinal around?  And that cardinals can have other names, such as Scarlet Tanager or Blue Grosbeak(Now you’re probably completely confused haha)

Many people don’t realized that the term “Cardinal” is used to describe a whole family of birds. The family name is Cardinalidae, which consists of 18 species and 7 genera (in North America that is. Worldwide there are 52 species in 11 genera). This family includes grosbeaks, tanagers, and buntings, as well as the Northern Cardinal which bears the family name and its Southwestern cousin, the Pyrrhuloxia.

As with all families, members of the Cardinal family have similar characteristics. These include:

  • Bright and boldly colored males, females with brown tones
  • Small to medium-sized, with stock bodies and relatively short tails, with males being slightly larger
  • Stout conical bills (finch-like)
  • Being primarily found in woodlands, brushy areas, and hedgrows
  • Primarily feeding on fruits and seeds in the winter and insects and larvae in the summer
  • Building cup-shaped nests in shrubs of trees
  • Musical songs with whistled or warbled phrases, sharp and distinct calls (some females, such as the Northern Cardinal, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Pyrrhuloxia, sing too)

The following Cardinals are found in North America:

  • Genus Piranga: Hepatic Tanager, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Western Tanager, Flame-colored Tanager
  • Genus Pheucticus: Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Genus Rhodothraupis: Crimson-collard Grosbeak
  • Genus Cardinalis: Northern Cardinal, Pyrrhuloxia
  • Genus Cyanocompsa: Blue Bunting
  • Genus Passerina: Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Varied Bunting, Painted Bunting
  • Genus Spiza: Dickcissel

So the next time someone says something like “Hey, did you see a cardinal? “ or “Do you like cardinals?” you can answer back with  “What kind?” (and really confuse them like I did in the beginning of this post). Then you can teach all your friends about the fascinating world of the family Cardinalidae :-).

What’s your favorite member of the Cardinalidae family? Tell me in the comments. (Mine are the Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, and of course, the beloved Northern Caridnal)