Inside: The mysteries of the yellow cardinal are revealed including “what causes yellow cardinals to be yellow”, where they’ve been spotted, how rare they are, and a ton more yellow northern cardinal facts.
Yellow cardinals are one of three rare types of cardinals. They’re so rare you’ll probably never see any of them. The other two rare types of cardinals are the half-male/half-female, and white cardinals. This article focuses on the yellow northern cardinals.
In 2018, a yellow cardinal was reported in Alabaster, Alabama. You might say it was the sighting that brought immediate notoriety to the rare bird. It may have also given validation to all the people who thought they saw a yellow cardinal but figured they were “seeing things”.
Following the Alabaster sighting, much has been brought to our attention regarding this rare bird. First, we learned that yellow cardinals do exist. Then, we learned what causes a northern cardinal’s normal red coloration to be yellow instead.
In this article, I’ll share where the various yellow cardinal sightings took place across the US and Canada, the cause of yellow northern cardinals being yellow rather than red, and many other interesting facts about yellow cardinals.
Are there really yellow cardinals?
Yellow cardinals are real. They’re also very rare and not normal in terms of coloration.
Shortly, I’ll explain the genetic defect that causes some cardinals to be yellow instead of red.
What does a yellow cardinal look like
The yellow cardinal looks nearly identical to the normal male cardinal except anywhere red is normally displayed in the plumage, yellow is in its place.
Yellow cardinals have a yellow crown, head, breast, and belly. They have a full black mask around their eyes, beak, and neck. Yellow northern cardinals have short orange beaks. They also have yellow and gray feathers and tails.
Yellow Cardinal Pictures & Videos
A picture speaks a thousand words – especially in the case of something unusual and rare. Below are videos and pictures of yellow cardinals to once more prove they are real.
Which Cardinal Species is the Yellow Cardinal?
First, let’s clarify the exact bird we’re talking about here since the cardinal family includes three “true” cardinals:
- The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
- The pyrrhuloxia cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus)
- The vermillion cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus) – photo not shown
Yellow cardinals are northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) found throughout North America.
Where Yellow Cardinals Live?
Yellow cardinals live where normal northern cardinals live – the eastern and southern parts of the US, far southeastern parts of Canada, and eastern and coastal parts of Mexico. The range map below illustrates their general range but they have been known to go further north into Canada in recent years.
Is a yellow cardinal male or female?
Yellow cardinals can be either male or female. Since male cardinals are normally all red it’s easier to detect the genetic mutation in them. Female cardinals have trace colors of red making it more challenging to do so.
Loss of red coloration is the result of a mutation that knocks out the pathway to red pigments. Females should be just as suspectable to this as males—they are just harder to spot.Dr. Geoff Hill
What does a yellow cardinal sound like
Yellow cardinals sound the same as red cardinals. Since the only difference between normal colored cardinals and yellow ones is the missing color conversion enzyme, there is no difference between them in any other way.
What causes a cardinal to be yellow?
A genetic mutation causes yellow cardinals to be yellow instead of red.
As part of a normal diet northern cardinals (and other songbirds & woodpeckers as well) ingest carotenoid-containing foods. Ingesting yellow-pigment carotenoids is relatively easy given the availability of these foods. Foods with red-pigment carotenoids are less available so cardinals rely on a process that converts yellow pigmentation to red.
This process requires an enzyme to make the conversion. Yellow cardinals lack this enzyme thus never converting the yellow to red resulting in the deposit of yellow coloration into the feathers. Yellow plumage exists everywhere red would normally be.
When the enzyme is present the cardinal has red feathers. When the enzyme is missing the cardinal has yellow feathers.
Dr. Hill goes into more explanation in this fascinating video.
How many yellow cardinals are there?
While it’s unknown exactly how many yellow cardinals there are, there have been at least seven confirmed sightings of them and nine unconfirmed sightings.
Yellow Cardinal Sightings
Yellow cardinals have been spotted throughout the US and Canada mostly in the east where the cardinal population is abundant. The list below details the sightings that were verified with photos or video along with the year spotted.
- In 2018 there was a yellow cardinal sighting in Alabaster, Alabama. He was named Mr. Yellow.
- In 2018 there was a yellow cardinal sighting in Gainesville, Florida on the University of Florida campus.
- In 2019 there was a yellow cardinal sighting in Theodore, Alabama.
- In 2020 there was a yellow cardinal sighting in Palm City, Florida. Twenty minutes later another yellow cardinal sighting was made in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
- In 2020 there was a yellow cardinal sighting in Boynton Beach, Florida.
- In 2020 there was a yellow cardinal sighting in Rushville, Illinois. He was named Sunny. That rare bird continued to visit the backyard for another year.
- In 2022 there was a yellow cardinal sighting in Anderson, South Carolina.
Yellow cardinal sightings have also been mentioned for the following areas but I have not found confirmation of them:
- Ohio (Cincinnati)
- New jersey
- Nova Scotia
How rare is the yellow cardinal?
Many wonder just how rare the yellow cardinal is. Dr. Geoff Hill, an esteemed Ornithologist who has spent his career studying feather pigmentation, estimates that for every million cardinals, one is yellow. In other words, your chance of seeing a yellow cardinal is one-in-a-million.
How does being yellow affect the cardinals’ reproduction?
I think the question on a lot of our minds is whether or not being yellow affects the cardinal’s ability to find a mate (or more specifically, be accepted by a mate), breed, and ultimately reproduce. This is especially interesting when you consider female cardinals often choose males with the brightest red plumage (this is a key factor in selecting their mate, but not the only one).
In response to a similar question posed on Dr. Geoff Hill’s Youtube channel “Birding Better”, he indicated that at least a couple of yellow cardinals have been observed with a female mate and they did produce babies. (No word on whether the babies inherited the yellow genetic mutation). Dr. Hill goes on to say cardinals have likely existed with this color mutation since the beginning (millions of years) and there continue to be yellow cardinals.
So although there have not been any scientific studies on this matter to determine the extent to which yellow plumage affects the male cardinal’s reproduction endeavors, we know there are at least a couple out there that were successful.
Yellow Cardinal Spiritual Meaning
Seeing a yellow bird symbolizes joy and happiness. Seeing a yellow cardinal brings together the ideas of hope, joy, and happiness for any viewer.
What does it mean when you see a Yellow Cardinal?
For those who view cardinals as messengers from beyond the grave, seeing a yellow cardinal can feel like a message of hope, joy, and happiness from a departed loved one.
Aren’t There Yellow Cardinals in South America?
Yes. However, they are not the same cardinals as the abnormally colored yellow cardinals were’ talking about. The yellow cardinals in South America are different. The common name for these birds is actually yellow cardinal and the scientific name is Gubernatrix cristata.
Since the northern cardinal’s genus is “Cardinalas” and South America’s yellow cardinal is “Gubernatrix” we know they’re not even in the same aviary family. Ironically, they do have some resemblance – especially the classic crest.
It would be a one-in-a-million thrill to see a yellow cardinal. Most of us will never see one – the odds are against us. Given that the condition is abnormal, I’d say it’s a good thing there aren’t more yellow cardinals to see. What do you think?