White, Albino & Leucistic Cardinals: Rare Birds You’d Be Incredibly Lucky to See

Inside: The mysteries of white cardinal birds are revealed – both albino and leucistic cardinals are discussed. Why they’re white instead of red, the difference between albino and leucistic cardinals, lots of photos and videos, and a ton more white cardinal bird facts!

White cardinals are one of three rare types of cardinals – they’re so rare you’ll probably never see one. The other two rare types of cardinals are the half-male/half-female, and yellow cardinals. This article focuses on white cardinals – both albino and leucistic.

Are there really white cardinals?

Yes, there really are white cardinals. White cardinals are very rare and can be all white or partially white while the rest of the bird is colored normally.  

White Cardinals

White cardinals have a condition referred to as albino or leucistic depending on the cause of unexpected coloration. Possible causes include:

  • Inability to produce melanin
  • Produces melanin but is unable to deposit into the feathers
  • One or more pigments of melanin missing or low

So what’s the big deal about terminology? Well, albino is widely understood to be a genetic mutation whereas leucism refers to the inability to deposit melanin. All of these conditions are rare but albino is the rarest.

Which Cardinal Species Is The Yellow Cardinal?

In case you’re a cardinal connoisseur, let’s clarify the exact bird species 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)

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

Albino Cardinals

albino cardinal
Albino cardinal. Photo by Dr. Spencer Moore.

Albino cardinals are often referred to as full albino or true albino and are the rarest form of white cardinals. 

Albino Cardinals’ Appearance

Albino cardinals have pink eyes and legs, white feathers, and red on their crown, wings, and/or tail. The most unique identifier of this bird is its pink eyes.

Since this bird is so rare it’s amazing to see them in photos and videos. Yet, I scoured the internet to share these images with you.

Check out this adorable video featuring a baby albino cardinal.

Cause of Albino Cardinals’ White Coloration

Albino cardinals get their unique white appearance from a genetic mutation that prevents the bird from producing melanin. The absence of melanin is due to a missing enzyme called tyrosinase.

Unfortunately, albino cardinals suffer a low survival due to poor eyesight since melanin is crucial for good sight. This is why you’ll almost never see an adult albino cardinal. 

Leucistic Cardinals

Leucistic cardinals can be fully or partially leucistic and are also rare birds – but not as rare as albino cardinals.  Sometimes people use the term “pied” to refer to birds with leucism.

Leucistic Cardinals’ Appearance

leucistic female cardinal
Leucistic female northern cardinal (cardinalis cardinalis) lacks color in the facial area.

Since fully and partially leucistic cardinals have unique appearances and technical differences, let’s discuss them separately.

Fully Leucistic Cardinals

Fully leucistic cardinals have black eyes, flesh-colored legs, white feathers, red crown, wings, and/or tail.

Here’s an amazing video of a fully leucistic female cardinal spotted in Will County, Illinois.

Another great capture of a fully leucistic male cardinal. 

Partially Leucistic Cardinals

female leucistic cardinal perched on bird feeder
Female leucistic cardinal. Photo by Pat Ready.

Partially leucistic cardinals have black eyes, flesh-colored legs, and scattered white patches along with normal colored feathers. White areas are usually grouped in the head, wings, and/or tail.

Here’s a video of a partially leucistic cardinal. He’s especially beautiful (at least I think so!).

Cause of Leucistic Cardinals’ White Coloration

Fully leucistic cardinals are able to produce melanin but something prevents it from depositing the melanin in all of the feathers. 

Partially leucistic cardinals are able to produce melanin and deposit it in some, but not all feathers. The condition is extremely variable resulting in no two partially leucistic cardinals looking the same. 

The Difference Between Albino and Leucistic Cardinals

From an appearance standpoint, the most distinguishing feature between albino and leucistic cardinals is that albino cardinals have pink eyes while leucistic cardinals do not. 

Technically, albino cardinals are unable to produce melanin due to the absence of the required enzyme tyrosinase. Leucistic cardinals produce melanin but are unable to deposit it into the feathers either completely (fully leucistic) or partially (partially leucistic).

How Rare are White Cardinals?

Albino cardinals are the rarest of the white cardinals due to the survival challenges resulting from the lack of pigment in their eyes. These birds don’t see as well and rarely make it to adulthood.

Fully leucistic is the next rare type of white cardinal. Although partially leucistic is also rare, they’re more commonly seen than the other two.

Are White Cardinals Male or Female?

White cardinals, whether albino or leucistic, can be male or female.

Where do White Cardinals Live?

Albino and leucistic 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.

Dreaming of a White Cardinal – What does it Mean?

Not all dreams have positive meaning and that’s the case with white cardinal dreams. In fact, it can serve as a warning for resentment, jealousy, and revenge

Dreaming of a white cardinal can also signify that someone in your circle of friends or family is depleting you of energy, so you may want to take caution when addressing or taking action on the one causing you exhaustion. 

This awareness has the potential for you to create a new start, possibly distancing yourself from someone to regain vitality and become the person you would be proud to become. 

Summary of White Cardinal Types, Cause, and Appearance

The chart below details the cause of each type of white cardinal condition along with what it looks like.

TypeCauseAppearance
Full or True AlbinoGenetic mutation where birds are unable to produce melanin due to the absence of the enzyme tyrosinase. These birds suffer a low survival due to poor eyesight since melanin is crucial for good sight. Albino cardinals are very rare.Pink eyes & legs, white feathers, red crown, wings, and/or tail.
Fully LeucisticMelanin can be produced but something prevents it from depositing the melanin in all of the feathers.Black eyes, flesh-colored legs, white feathers, red crown, wings, and/or tail.
Partially LeucisticMelanin is produced and deposited in some but not all feathers. Extremely variable resulting in no two partially leucistic cardinals looking the same.
Although rare, more commonly seen than fully leucistic or albino cardinals.
Black eyes, flesh-colored legs, scattered white patches along with normal colored feathers. White areas are usually grouped in the head, wings, and/or tail.

Additional Rare Cardinal Coloration Defects

But wait, there’s more!

According to David Sibley of the famous Sibley (bird) Guides, there are even more rare colorations that can be present in cardinals.

Lacking eumelanin (Non-eumelanic): Cardinals can also lack the black/gray pigment called “eumelanin” which results in the black mask and any other black markings being absent of color.

Lacking phaeomelanin (Non-phaeomelanic): This condition results when the female cardinal is lacking “phaeomelanin” a chestnut/buff colored pigment. Instead of her buffy brown body, she’s left with varying shades of gray.

Dilute plumage: Lower concentrations of pigment are deposited throughout the bird’s feathers but in lower amounts giving a diluted appearance. So, the bird appears paler appearance or “ghosting” effect.

There are a few more conditions but I think we’ve had enough science for one day.

Conclusion

White cardinals are rare birds that exist due to a genetic mutation. Either the bird doesn’t produce melanin (albino) or it produces the pigment but doesn’t properly deposit it (leucistic). Leucistic cardinals are not as rare as albino cardinals but I’m perfectly OK with that given how short albino cardinals live due to missing eye pigmentation.

Still, what a thrill it would be to see a cardinal with full or partial leucism. Some of the rare color combinations are truly beautiful!

Happy Birding!