Extremely rare yellow cardinal spotted in Florida — twice

Max Chesnes
Treasure Coast

PORT ST. LUCIE — An exceptionally rare yellow northern cardinal with a genetic color mutation was spotted and photographed in Port St. Lucie Saturday morning.

Tracy Workman, who teaches photography at a homeschooling organization in Port St. Lucie, said she first spotted the bird in her backyard Oct. 3.

Nine days later, Workman saw the rare bird re-appear; this time she followed it for 5 minutes with her Canon T5i camera before finally capturing some photographs.  

"Following a bird is of course not the best way to get pictures of it," Workman laughed. "But at first, I didn't believe I actually saw it. I was super excited." 

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Geoffrey Hill, a professor and curator of birds at Auburn University and an expert on bird coloration, said the bird in Workman's photographs is an adult male northern cardinal with a rare genetic mutation found in the species. 

Hill said the mutation found in the northern cardinal species acts as a "knockout of the redness pathway" in the bird's DNA, blocking the normal red pigment and replacing it with a vibrant yellow color.

Only three yellow cardinal sightings are reported a year, making the bird's appearance a rare "one in a million" finding, Hill added.

The mutation is analogous to albinism found in humans, Hill said. Like humans, all birds have DNA that is subject to mutations. 

"This phenomenon has been around forever, but now everybody is looking for them," Hill said. "This is good for habitat preservation. People are excited about birds for a minute." 

Hill first studied and published his findings on this genetic mutation in 2003, where he and a colleague obtained a feather from a yellow northern cardinal donated to a Louisiana museum. After their research, it became clear that the yellow coloring was the result of a genetic mutation. 

Other birds, like finches, will often turn a yellowish color while in captivity, but Hill said northern cardinals do not have this response in their DNA and will only become a pale red in color. 

The bird was found in the area of Prima Vista Boulevard and Floresta Drive, but Workman did not want to disclose the exact location for fear of an increase in excited birder watchers coming to her house. 

Workman gave the yellow cardinal the nickname "Sunny," she said. 

"I thought it was a good name for a yellow cardinal in Florida," she said. 

Thomas Webber, a collection manager of the Division of Ornithology at the Florida Museum in Gainesville, said the yellow cardinal makes up "well below 1 percent" of the entire cardinal population.  

While some female cardinals can appear yellow or ochre in color, a male cardinal with true yellow pigment is far from common, Webber said. 

"It's an extremely rare phenomenon," Webber added. 

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For Doug Young, Chief Operating Officer for the South Florida Audubon Society, a rare wildlife sighting like the yellow cardinal means an increase in appreciation for the world's most fragile bird populations. 

A new report recently released by the National Audubon Society shows that 389 bird species are at risk of extinction due to climate change. If greenhouse gas emissions are not decreased by 45% by 2030, these species could be highly vulnerable to extinction. 

"Getting the word spread about these rare sightings is a good thing," Young said. "It's a visual that gets people excited about birds and nature." 

Young, who frequently presents to the public about the effects of climate change on South Florida bird populations and its global implications, said the yellow cardinal sighting came at a good time. 

"Whenever there's something out of the ordinary, it's interesting because you don't see it all the time," Young said. "It's of interest because it's a thing of beauty." 

A yellow cardinal was also spotted in Alabama in February 2018. A professional photographer, Jeremy Black, asked to come to the woman's house who spotted the bird and captured footage that has circulated across the nation. 

Max Chesnes is a TCPalm breaking news reporter for Indian River County. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes and give him a call at 772-978-2224.