“As soon as it landed, I was star-struck,” Black told National Geographic. “It kind of took my breath away a little bit.”
Black said in a Facebook post that he learned about the bird from a friend, Charlie Stephenson, a longtime birdwatcher who had spotted the sun-hued fellow at her feeder. At first, she told Al.com, she figured it was a species of yellow bird she had never seen before. Then she realized that the creature, with its black mask and crested head, looked just like a cardinal — just one of a different color.
This coloration is not unique, but it is aberrant, according to a 2003 research paper on what at the time was said to be the first-ever reported yellow northern cardinal in the United States. It was a specimen collected in 1989 in Baton Rouge by scientists at Louisiana State University. Researchers who studied its feathers concluded that the bird had a genetic mutation that impaired the metabolic processes that normally make red feathers out of the carotenoid-rich yellow and orange foods in a male cardinal’s diet.
Geoffrey E. Hill, an Auburn University professor who co-wrote that paper, told Al.com that the Alabama bird probably has that genetic mutation.
It is “a one in a million mutation,” said Hill, who added that he had never seen a live yellow cardinal in 40 years of birdwatching.
Another possible explanation, a National Audubon Society expert told the organization’s blog, is a dietary deficiency.
Rare though they are, yellow northern cardinals seem a bit more common with the advent of digital cameras and social media. A pair was spotted in Kentucky in 2011. Cindy Morgan, a Wynne, Ark., resident who commented on the Facebook post about the latest sighting, said one had visited her feeders in fall and winter for three years in a row.
Stephenson, understandably, says she would like her yellow visitor’s fans to confine their admiration to the Internet. She told Al.com that she’s keeping her precise location secret to prevent birders — who are known to travel far and wide for a rare sighting — from flocking to her back yard.