Cardinals are known for their bright red color, but an Illinois couple had a one-in-a-million experience with a member of the species in a different hue.
In February 2020, Chelsea Curry noticed a yellow songbird perched on a feeder at her home in Rushville. She called her husband, Richard, to come look at the unknown bird. He said it looked like a cardinal, which she did not believe.
“I argued that it was not because there was no such thing. He told me he didn’t know there was either, but it was definitely a cardinal. We Googled it, and that’s when we realized that it really was a yellow cardinal and just how rare they are,” Curry told USA TODAY.
This week, Geoffrey Hill, a professor, bird curator and expert on bird coloration at Auburn University, confirmed that the couple spotted the rare bird.
He said in an interview in 2019 that people have a “one-in-a-million” chance to spot a yellow cardinal. He said the coloration is due to a mutation in the bird’s DNA that blocks the normal red pigment and replaces it with a yellow color that stems from its diet.
“Almost all land birds only ingest yellow pigments. There’s almost no red carotenoids in the diets of cardinals or almost any other bird,” Hill told USA TODAY. He said cardinals have an enzyme that converts the yellow pigments to red, but if that enzyme fails, the feathers will be yellow.
This isn’t the first time a yellow cardinal has made headlines. One drew national interest when it was spotted in Alabama in 2018, and some have been seen in Florida in 2019 and 2020. Hill said that of the estimated 50 million cardinals in the eastern parts of the USA and Canada, 10 to 12 are yellow.
The bird the Currys spotted was a male, Hill said, but they are commonly mistaken for females. He said the mutation isn’t life-threatening; the unique cardinals are often healthy and will mate.
Curry said the bird, which has not been named, comes three to four times a day, and the worse the weather is, the more he’s there. He brings along a mate, and sometimes a younger cardinal is with them.
She said the yellow cardinal raised her interest in birds, and her parents love to bird-watch. Though her kids weren’t as thrilled about seeing the bird, Curry said, “he’s definitely part of our family.”
Hill said the reason such occurrences garner so much attention is because they give people a connection to nature, which sometimes “feels foreign or unapproachable.” He said the attention is great for bird conservation.
“Most people spend most of their lives with no thoughts about birds whatsoever,” Hill said. “If you bring a focus on birds to 10 times more people than they’ve ever focused on birds before, that’s absolutely good.”