As It Happens

Alabama photographer snaps close-up of 'insanely rare and beautiful' yellow cardinal

A "one-in-a-million" yellow cardinal has been spotted in Alabaster, Ala.
The yellow cardinal has a rare genetic mutation which blocks its ability to produce red pigmentation, leaving it a vibrant yellow. (Jeremy Black)

Story transcript

Jeremy Black says he was so "starstruck" when he first saw the mysterious vibrant yellow cardinal in Alabaster, Ala., that he almost forgot to snap the now-viral photo.

"I had my camera in my hand at the time and then kind of had a moment where I was like 'Oh I'm supposed to be photographing this insanely rare and beautiful bird,'" the wildlife photographer told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The unusually yellow-coloured cardinal was first spotted by Black's friend, Charlie Stephenson, in her backyard in late January. When she posted an iPhone photo to Facebook, Black knew he had to find out more about this rare bird, and to try to capture the perfect picture.

Jeremy Black said he was 'starstruck' when he finally spotted the yellow cardinal in an Alabaster, Alabama, backyard. (Jeremy Black)

He said that Stephenson reached out to Auburn University biology professor Geoffrey Hill, who specializes in bird colouration, to find out if this bird is actually a yellow cardinal. 

A rare mutation 

Hill told that the bird is an adult male cardinal, and is the same species as the common red cardinal. But what makes it so special is a rare genetic mutation.

All cardinals and other songbirds have to consume a substance called carotenoids  — found in carrots and sweet potatoes — to achieve their bright feathers.

In the case of the yellow cardinal, it carries a rare genetic mutation which blocks its ability to biochemically convert the yellow pigments in the carotenoids to red.

Black said he didn't realize how special this bird was when he first saw Stephenson's picture on Facebook.

"I had no idea the rarity of it. I know in my lifetime I've never seen one before, so I knew it was definitely something that was different. But I had no idea it was a one-in-a-million chance of being seen," Black said.

"I had no idea that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to photograph this one bird."

A male red cardinal sits perched on a branch in rural eastern Ontario. The yellow cardinal is the same species and he's not as popular with females as his red rivals. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Black has been camping out in Stephenson's backyard during the day, and has been monitoring the bird for about a week.

He says the other male cardinals don't seem to mind their oddly hued neighbour, but it doesn't seem to be popular with the female cardinals.

"I've noticed that the females tend to stay away from the cardinal, which is probably because he's yellow and they have no idea if it's something completely different — or that it is a male," he said.

Birders are flocking to Alabaster 

As with any rare bird, excited birders have flocked to the Alabama city of Alabaster, a suburb of Birmingham.

Black says he has received thousands of messages from people wanting to travel across the United States to see the bird since he posted his photos on Facebook.

Black said the yellow cardinal has been spotted in residential areas but also at a local public park, which is where he is asking people to go look for the bird. 

"We're encouraging people to go there since it is a public place and we really want everyone to have the opportunity to see the bird," he said. 

'Most unique' photo 

As for his photo, Black says he only had about three minutes to get over his initial shock and capture the two vibrant photos of the yellow cardinal before it was scared away by a squirrel.

Still, he says those few moments were the highlight of his photography career, which has been spent travelling across the U.S. to photograph wildlife, as well as working as a wedding photographer. 

"This is probably the most unique thing I've ever had the opportunity to take a picture of."   


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