From a distance, the disarmingly bright-yellow bird could have been mistaken for a goldfinch, warbler or maybe an escaped parakeet, at least to the untrained eye. But, Shelby County, Alabama, resident Charlie Stephenson had not seen anything like the unusual specimen which started visiting her backyard feeder in the late January, even in her decades of experience birding. The yellow cardinal, a bird so rare that she told al.com:
“I thought, ‘well, there is a bird that I have never seen before.’”
For a good reason: the bird is a yellow cardinal, coloration caused by such an extraordinarily rare mutation, Auburn University biology professor Geoffrey Hill’s decades of professional experiences as an avian curator, as well as a researcher focusing on cardinals, he has never seen one in the wild.
Hill, who is the writer of many books on bird coloration and studied the specific mutation that results in a yellow cardinal, notes songbirds obtain their color through a diet of carotenoid-containing plants:
“Songbirds such as cardinals almost never consume red pigments; instead, they consume abundant yellow pigments. So, to be red, Cardinals need to biochemically convert yellow pigments to red.”
Researchers, including Hills too, identified CYP2J19 as the enzyme which is necessary for that process in most cardinals, even though he opined from afar, on sabbatical in Australia, the possibility of collecting a yellow cardinal feather for DNA testing to further discern the precise mutation.
Meanwhile, Black remains dedicated to capturing the unique, as well as rare scene of the sunny-yellow bird next to one of his commoner red counterparts – a rarer than it is once-in-a-lifetime shot.
“I am trying to get a unique photograph, and that is the yellow cardinal that is next to a traditional North American red cardinal. My current personal goal is to try, as well as visit her backyard or her neighborhood as regularly as possible and see if I can get that shot with both of the birds together.”
Stephenson emphasized that she had no idea how rare a yellow cardinal is.
“I am used to starting a birder, and you see some leukocytic ones, you see some that are albino ones. But, I also thought that he was something else, and then I learned how rare it is.”
The birding enthusiasts and the homeowner told the Shelby County Reporter:
“Of all of the places, he is in Alabaster, Alabama. I wonder how a lot of people have seen the bird and not thought anything of it.”
Image: Photographer Jeremy Black/Wiat.com.
If you’d like to see more images of the rare find, check out Jeremy Black Photography.
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