'One in a Million' Yellow Cardinal Spotted

Experts propose different theories for why bird's plumes have a mysteriously mustard hue.

Watch: Rare Yellow Cardinal Spotted in Alabama

Looking out at her quaint Alabama backyard in late January, Charlie Stephenson noticed something unusual. A strange species of unfamiliar yellow bird was pecking at her hanging birdfeeder.

As a seasoned birdwatcher, Stephenson had seen scores of cardinals in the past. But with its mustard-color coat, this flier was different. So, she took a photo with her iPhone and posted it on Facebook.

Stephenson told AL.com she has seen albino and leucistic birds, the latter being animals that are mostly white but can produce some pigment. (Related: "Why Yellow Birds Mysteriously Turn Red.")

But this golden visitor is neither: it's a male northern cardinal with a "one in a million" genetic mutation that made its red feathers yellow, according to Geoffrey Hill, a bird curator at Auburn University in Alabama.

In his 40 years of cardinal birdwatching, Hill has never seen a yellow bird like this in the wild.

The unusually yellow cardinal is not to be confused with the yellow cardinal, an endangered South American species with black and white markings and the occasional green tinge. (Related: "Extremely Rare Albino Orangutan Found in Indonesia.")


In 1918 Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to protect birds from wanton killing. To celebrate the centennial, National Geographic is partnering with the National Audubon Society, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to declare 2018 the Year of the Bird. Watch for more stories, maps, books, events, and social media content throughout the year.

Seeking Songbird

After Stephenson posted the photo, her friend and professional photographer Jeremy Blackcame over to photograph the bird.

"At the time, I had no idea one even existed," Black says. "I kind of thought it was Photoshopped for a second."

Black-browed Barbet. Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Portuguese man-of-war. Shell Cove, New South Wales, Australia
Fan-throated lizard. Pune, Maharashtra, India
Tiger salamander. Willcox, Arizona, United States
Peacock. Pasadena, California, United States
Rainbow lorikeets
Green vine snake. Shimoga, Karnataka, India
Scarlet macaw. Seoul, South Korea
Bee-eaters. Lliçà d'Amunt, Catalonia, Spain
Blue jay
Red-eyed tree frog
Golden pheasant. Pingdingshan, Henan Sheng, China
Flamingos. Lake Nakuru, Kenya
Mandarin duck. Dublin, Leinster, Ireland
Blue-ringed octopus
Giraffes. Maasai Mara, Kenya
Hoopoes. Shenyang, Fujian, China
King penguins. South Georgia Island
Cephea jellyfish. Shelly Beach, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Lilac-breasted roller. South Africa
Blue-footed booby. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Snow leopard
Bee-eater. Danube-Ipoly National Park, Hungary
Agama lizard. Ruaha, Morogoro Region, Tanzania
Pit viper. Batam Centre, Riau, Indonesia
Keel-billed toucan. Costa Rica
Lion fish. Dhahab, Muhafazat Janub Sina', Egypt
Indian chameleon
Tiger. Gumtara, Madhya Pradesh, India
Poison dart frog. Houston, Texas, United States
Banded Kingfishers. Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand
Gecko. Keaukaha, Hawaii, United States
Nicobar pigeon. New York City, New York, United States
Rosy maple moth. Evington, Virginia, United States
Clownfish. Pulau Menjangan, Bali, Indonesia
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On February 17, Black spent five hours scouring Stephenson's backyard with his camera and a pair of binoculars—but after seeing only red cardinals, he withdrew to Stephenson's screened-in porch.

Then, a few hours later, the elusive songbird landed in her neighbor's yard.

"As soon as it landed, I was starstruck," Black says. "It kind of took my breath away a little bit."

Black could only manage two or three shots before a squirrel startled the bird and it flitted away again. He's been trying to get more photos ever since, visiting her yard daily for the last week or so.

Red or Yellow?

Songbirds get their color from yellow, orange, and red pigments called carotenoidsfound in their food, like sweet potatoes and carrots. Although wild songbirds typically eat yellow-pigmented foods, they can transform that color into warm, red feathers. (Related: "Why These Giraffes Are Completely White.")

But a rare mutation residing in the genes of the cardinal in question might be blocking that color-changing pathway, diluting the bird's red pigment to yellow.

Genetics might not be the only thing to blame for this odd-looking cardinal. The bird's discoloration could also be a sign of illness, Geoff LeBaron, Christmas bird Director at the National Audubon Society, said on the organization's website.

LeBaron points out that the bird's crest and wing feathers are rather worse for wear, a possible indication of a poor diet or stressful environment—factors that may be preventing the bird from boasting its true, vibrant red hue. (Related: "Why This Swedish Moose is Entirely White.")

If the same yellow bird is seen in Alabaster next winter, then it likely has a genetic mutation, he says. DNA analysis could definitively solve this color-confused mystery, though there are no plans to capture the animal. (Related: "How Color-Changing Animals Are Rebelling Against Climate Change.")

"Time will tell with this bird," LeBaron says. 

The growing popularity of city parks have been beneficial for urban squirrel populations. These bushy-tailed mammals (Sciurus carolinensis) thrive off access to a wide range of nut trees.

These images are from the National Geographic Photo Ark, a mission to create a visual archive of the world’s species—before many of them disappear. To date, photographer Joel Sartore has already taken portraits of more than 6,000 animals. Learn more about how you can support the project.

These adaptable creatures (Procyon lotor) are well accustomed to human settlement. They can use their nimble paws to pry open garbage cans and break into attic spaces for use as dens.

Human society has had a long and storied relationship with the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), with the canids playing a prominent role in many cultures’ mythologies. Red foxes increasingly feel as comfortable in cities as they do in the countryside—particularly in London.

One of the most ubiquitous city-dwelling creatures, the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) can be found thriving in basically any human settlement. When living so close together, the daily interactions between urbanites and these rodents can be both awkward and comedic.

Changing weather patterns and increasing development have compelled these migratory birds to settle in parking lots and parks throughout North America. The noisy creatures (Branta canadensis maxima) have taken to human environments so well that some communities are seeking ways to humanely control their populations.

As rural coyote (Canis latrans) populations inflate, these clever beasts have begun appearing in densely populated cities. They have changed their behaviors to adapt to metropolitan areas—in Chicago, coyotes have become nocturnal to minimize contact with humans.

These multihued birds have become established residents in cities worldwide. Often found together in flocks, pigeons (Columba livia) can be found roosting on the ledges of skyscrapers and feeding from handouts in city parks.

Human development has proven beneficial to mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos). These waterfowl can pretty much make a home anywhere they can get access to a body of freshwater: fountains in urban parks, water hazards in golf courses, and even the courtyard of National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

These aquatic mammals can be found lounging on seaside rocks along the Pacific coastline of the United States. California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) are quite comfortable living side by side with humans—one seal pup even wandered into a restaurant in San Diego.

These evasive big cats are not often spotted by people, but bobcats (Lynx rufus) have been known to prowl the edges of human settlements hunting rodents and other small prey.

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