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.
“I have been birdwatching in the range of cardinals for 40 years, and I have also seen a yellow bird in the wild. I would also estimate that in any given year, there are two or maybe three yellow cardinals at backyard feeding stations somewhere in the U.S. or Canada. There are perhaps a million bird feeding stations in that area, so very roundly yellow cardinals are a one in a million mutation.”
Stephenson, who with understanding refused to give her location which was other than the town of Alabaster, shot a short video of the rare bird and she also posted it to the social media, instantly captivating the attention of friend, as well as professional photographer, Jeremy Black, who then asked if he might try to catch a glimpse of the yellow cardinal, firsthand.
“As soon as I saw it on her social media, I was kind of curious and I also wanted to go explore and see if I could find it,” Black remarked to AL.com; and, perched quietly in the backyard of his friend, on 19th of February, “I finally saw it after about five hours.”
He also explained:
“I started out sitting in her backyard hoping that maybe I would see it. There are a lot of cardinals that came by, and none of them was with yellow color, so I decided to be a little bit more obscure and hide on her screened-in porch. About two or three hours after I relocated to the porch, the yellow cardinal finally showed up.”
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.