Cardinals are known for their bright red rcolor, but an Illinois couple had a one-in-a-million experience with the bird species.
In February 2020, Chelsea Curry noticed a yellow songbird perched on a bird feeder in their home in Rushville. She called over 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 had in fact spotted the rare bird.
He said in a 2019 interview 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 are or almost any other bird,” Hill told USA TODAY. He added that cardinals have an enzyme that converts the yellow pigments to red, but if that enzyme fails, then 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 United States and Canada, 10 to 12 are yellow.
The bird the Curry’s had spotted was a male, said Hill, as they are commonly mistaken to be females. He added that the mutation isn’t life threatening, as these unique cardinals are often healthy and will even mate.
Curry said the bird, which has not been named yet, comes three to four times a day, and the worse the weather is, the more he’s there. He even brings along a mate, and sometimes a younger cardinal is with them.
She added the yellow cardinal had raised her interest in birds since her parents love to bird watch. Even if he her kids weren’t as thrilled about seeing the bird, Curry said, “he’s definitely part of our family.”
Hill said the reason this occurrence garners so much attention is because it gives people a connection to nature, as sometimes it, “feels foreign or unapproachable.” He added that the attention is also 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.”