White, Albino & Leucistic Cardinals: How the 3 Are Different + 15 Photos & Videos

Author: Tammy Poppie

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albino cardinal

The mysteries of white cardinal birds are revealed including albino and leucistic cardinals. Find out 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. They can be all white, or partially white while the rest of the bird is colored normally. White cardinals with red eyes are albinos.

White Cardinals

A leucistic female cardinal in a tree.
White-headed female cardinal (leucistic). Photo by John Najvar.
A leucistic female cardinal in a tree with a normal male cardinal in the background
White-headed female cardinal (leucistic) with a normal male cardinal looking on. Photo by John Najvar.

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 White 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 refer to the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) found throughout North America.

Albino Cardinals

Is a white cardinal an albino?

Sometimes white cardinals are albinos while other white cardinals are leucistic.

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

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

Albino Cardinals’ Appearance

What does an albino cardinal look like?

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.

YouTube video

Cause of Albino Cardinals’ White Coloration

Albino cardinals get their unique white feathers 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 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. 

More albino cardinal pictures and videos

I just can’t get enough of viewing these interesting birds. Here are some more fascinating photos and videos. Enjoy!

YouTube video
YouTube video

Leucistic Cardinals

leucistic female cardinal
A white-headed female cardinal (leucistic). Photo by Bill Van Der Hagen

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.

Many, but not all of them are beautiful birds. While its true beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you have to admit the female cardinal above with the white head is gorgeous!

Leucistic Cardinals’ Appearance

Since fully and partially leucistic birds 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 crowns, wings, and/or tails.

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

YouTube video

Another great capture of a white male cardinal (fully leucistic).

YouTube video

Partially Leucistic Cardinals

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

Partially leucistic cardinals have black eyes, flesh-colored legs, and scattered patches of white feathers 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!).

YouTube video

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 birds looking the same. 

More Leucistic Cardinal Pictures & Videos

I can’t help it! Here are more photos and videos of rare white cardinals with leucism. Enjoy!

YouTube video
YouTube video
YouTube video

The Difference Between Albino and Leucistic Cardinals

From an appearance standpoint, the most distinguishing feature between albino and leucistic cardinals is that albino birds 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 birds produce melanin but are unable to deposit it into the feathers either completely (fully leucistic) or partially (partially leucistic).

How Rare is a White Cardinal?

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 a 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 your 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, Causes, and Appearance

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

Full or True AlbinoGenetic mutation where birds are unable to produce melanin due to the absence of the enzyme tyrosinase. These birds suffer low survival due to poor eyesight since melanin is crucial for good sight. An albino bird is 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.


The white cardinal is a special bird that exists 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 at the bird feeder or around the yard. Some of the rare color combinations are truly beautiful!

Happy Birding!