Yellow Cardinals: Rare Birds You’d be Incredibly Lucky to See

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 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 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 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 cardinals have short orange beaks. They also have yellow and gray feathers and tails.

a yellow cardinal bird
Abnormally colored yellow male cardinal.
normal red male cardinal
A normal colored red male cardinal

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.

Yellow northern cardinal feeding his mate
Yellow northern cardinal. Photo by Erika Norris Church.

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:

  1. The northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
  2. The pyrrhuloxia cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus)
  3. The vermillion cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus) – photo not shown

Yellow cardinals are northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) found throughout North America.

male cardinal on platform feeder
Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Yellow cardinals are part of this family of cardinals.
Male pyrrhuloxia
Pyrrhuloxia cardinal (Cardinalis sinuatus). Photo by Kitsie Johnson.

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.

Northern cardinal range map
Northern cardinal range map. Compliments of The Cornell Lab.

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.

Northern cardinal call. Audio compliments of Macaulay Library.
Northern cardinal song. Audio compliments of Macaulay Library.

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. 

illustration showing the cause of yellow cardinals which is a missing enzyme

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. 

Yellow Cardinal Sightings

Yellow cardinal spotted in Gainesville.
Yellow cardinal spotted in Gainesville. Photo by Wendy Chasalow Milstein.

Yellow cardinals have been spotted throughout the US and Canada mostly in the east where the cardinal population is abundant. The table below details the sightings that were verified with photos or video along with the year spotted.

Yellow cardinal sightings have also been mentioned for the following areas but I have not found confirmation of them:

  • Ohio (Cincinnati)
  • Michigan
  • Massachusetts
  • Arizona
  • New jersey
  • Wisconsin
  • Virginia
  • Oklahoma
  • 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. You might say your odds of seeing a yellow cardinal are 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.

What does a Yellow Cardinal Symbolize

What does it mean when you see a yellow cardinal?

Seeing a yellow bird symbolizes joy and happiness. Seeing a yellow cardinal brings together the ideas of hope, joy, and happiness for any viewer. 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.

conclusion

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?

Happy Birding!

More than 25 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers.