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Whether you are a bird watcher or simply spend time outdoors, it probably seems like you have seen hundreds of cardinals over the years. But have you ever seen one that’s yellow, and not red?

The answer -- most likely -- is no because they are so rare. In fact, there might be one yellow cardinal out of every million cardinals, Geoffrey Hill, a biological sciences professor at Auburn University, explains in a Chicago Tribune article.

Chelsea Curry and her family are exceptionally lucky. A yellow cardinal has been visiting the bird feeders at their home in Rushville, Illinois -- about 200 miles from Chicago -- for over a year.

“That is a legit yellow cardinal,” Hill told the Tribune when it asked him to review pictures of the bird visiting the Currys.

Why Is He Yellow?

Most of the approximately 12 million cardinals in North America are the fire-engine red or reddish-brown color you’re used to seeing, Hill says in the Tribune article. Out of that number, maybe 12 cardinals are yellow due to a genetic mutation.

Here’s what happens: Plants and some insects produce carotenoids, which are yellow, orange, and red pigments. Cardinals usually convert these pigments to red, which then gives their feathers the conventional red color.

“These [yellow] birds are not converting the yellow pigments they ingest in their diet to red,” Hill said in a CBS News article. “Presumably, it’s a mutation. There was a change in the genetic code -- and the change caused that pigmentation system to fail.”

The cardinal on a tree branch.
Chelsea Curry

The Yellow Cardinal’s First Arrival

The yellow cardinal at the Currys’ feeders first started showing up in February 2020, Curry told TravelAwaits. Because Curry works for a school that was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she was at home to see him visit.

“He was a regular visitor, coming to feed at breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Curry said. “Then he actually started spending most of the day here -- either at the feeder, in a tree, or in the yard.”

Eventually, the yellow cardinal started showing up with a mate, who was the usual light brown color with reddish highlights. In the spring, the pair started showing up with a juvenile bird, who was also brown with reddish highlights.

Then, in August, the cardinals quit visiting the Currys’ bird feeders. However, Curry says by then, the school she works for had reopened and she was back at work.

“It’s possible the yellow cardinal was still visiting but I just kept missing him because I was at work when he visited,” Curry said.

The Yellow Cardinal’s Return

When the weather started getting colder in late 2020, the yellow cardinal returned to the Currys’, she explains. Soon enough, he returned to his old habits.

“As the weather got colder, he began showing up more and more,” Curry said. “He usually came at least three times a day to feed, but by February, he often spent the entire day in the backyard.”

A Name For A Special Friend

Since school is in session, Curry has been telling the students about the bird and what he has been doing and showing them pictures. One student in particular -- a boy named Cooper -- has been extremely interested in the bird. He and Curry talk about the yellow cardinal daily, Curry says.

“Cooper and I thought the yellow cardinal should have a name because he comes to visit so often. Cooper came up with a name, which I think was a great idea. Now we call the yellow cardinal Cooper II.”

Inspired by birds? Consider all our bird watching content here, and get yourself a pair of our best binoculars for any budget so you can enjoy stellar views of whatever birds land on your feeders.

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