Rare Yellow Cardinal Bird Photographed in Illinois

Yellow cardinal birds are rare and beautiful. Recent sightings of yellow cardinals have been reported by birdwatchers in Illinois and Alabama.

Yellow cardinal 1Via Chelsea Curry
A rare yellow cardinal is visiting bird feeders in Rushville, Illinois.

In 2018, a bright yellow cardinal bird in Alabama fascinated the internet. The Northern cardinal is such a distinctive bird that even non-birders recognize its red-and-black coloration and perky crest at first sight. So a yellow cardinal is bound to catch the eye and the imagination. Now another birdwatcher in rural Rushville, Illinois, spotted a yellow cardinal bird. Here’s what we know.

What’s Up With a Yellow Cardinal Bird?

Northern cardinals get their vivid red color from pigments in their food called carotenoids. Foods with yellow pigments are transformed into red in the birds’ bodies, hence the red feathers. Female cardinals are mostly brown with red accents. Scientists theorize this yellow cardinal bird has a genetic mutation that stops the color changing process, resulting in those sunshine-colored feathers instead. It’s also possible the bird could be ill or stressed by environmental factors, causing the same problem. Without DNA testing it’s impossible to know for certain, but there are no plans to capture this wild bird to find out. Check out more simply stunning photos of Northern cardinals.

When Did the Illinois Yellow Cardinal Appear?

As reported by the Chicago Tribune, the rare Illinois cardinal first appeared in February 2020. Chelsea Curry, a second-generation bird-watcher, said she had never heard of a yellow cardinal. But she knew she was seeing something unique in her backyard. The bird became a recurring visitor at the Currys’ bird feeders, visiting multiple times daily.

Yellowcardinal2Via Chelsea Curry
The male yellow red cardinal in Illinois has attracted a mate.

Auburn University biological sciences professor Geoffrey Hill, reviewed photos of the Currys’ cardinal at the request of the Chicago Tribune, and confirmed the rare sighting.

After a while, the male yellow cardinal appeared with a female mate. And in spring, the pair brought a juvenile cardinal with them.

Chelsea says the Illinois yellow cardinal’s visits to her bird feeders continued until August 2020, and then stopped. But when the weather got cold again, the yellow cardinal came back to her yard.

What Was it Like to Photograph the Alabama Yellow Cardinal Bird?

We caught up with the photographer of the Alabama yellow cardinal, Jeremy Black, to learn more about his experience as well as his thoughts on nature photography in general. Jeremy is a professional photographer based in Alabama, where his friend Charlie Stevenson first spotted the yellow cardinal bird.

Tell Us How You Became a Professional Photographer

For years as a kid I endured bullying, and to escape that I visited The Birmingham Zoo, which became a sanctuary for me. My passion for wildlife started when my mother bought me a camera. I took it to the zoo to photograph their Malayan Tiger, Kumar. He became the inspiration for the majority of my work and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in photography.

I earned a degree in graphic design and photography from the University of Montevallo, then started a career in wildlife and portraiture photography, including weddings. (Visit Jeremy’s website here.)

Do You Consider Yourself a Birder?

I definitely consider myself a birder. From a young age I’d spend hours watching cardinals, chickadees, doves, woodpeckers, and an array of stunning birds interact with each other in my parents’ yard. They provided me with the perfect opportunity to learn how to photograph both wildlife and a moving subject. As I got older, I took advantage of the opportunity to work with birds and volunteered at the Alabama Wildlife Center to photograph their owls, falcons, and hawks.

I frequently visit local places like Limestone Park, Ebenezer Swamp, and Joe Tucker Park just to watch the wildlife there. Birds migrate to Limestone Park which provides a unique opportunity to view kingfishers, storks, egrets, hawks, and many more species that call that park their home.

Yellow Cardinal Bird Jeremy Black 2

Tell Us More About the Alabama Yellow Cardinal Bird

My friend Charlie Stevenson opened up her home and yard to allow me the opportunity to photograph this yellow cardinal bird, which I’m so grateful for. Before seeing the phone portrait she captured and posted on Facebook, I had no idea a mutation like this even occurred. I was aware of albinism in cardinals but not pigment mutation.

When the bird landed in her neighbor’s crape myrtle tree and I saw it for the first time, it took my breath away. It was sitting 15 feet away from me. The way the sunlight cascaded upon it, for a moment I completely forgot that I was supposed to be taking pictures of the bird! I managed to only capture a few shots before a squirrel scared it away. Those moments are irreplaceable and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

Obviously This Yellow Cardinal Will Always Be Special to You. Can You Share Some of Your Other Favorite Experiences?

There is one photograph that started it all for me. It features Kumar the Malayan Tiger residing in his enclosure watching the birds off in the distance, and in the moment I took that photo I found my love for wildlife.

The Alabama Wildlife Center has also provided me with numerous photographs that have become close to my heart. I found myself getting lost in the eyes of a Eurasian Eagle Owl when I had the opportunity to photograph it for the center. I’ve always loved great horned owls, so to be able to document this species of bird was remarkable, too.

Yellow Northern Cardinal Jeremy Black Kumar Malayan Tiger
Kumar, the Malayan Tiger

What Bird Photography Tips Can You Offer to Amateurs?

One of my favorite things about photographing birds is that there is never a dull moment. The birds are constantly flying, moving, and interacting with the world around them which provides me with a unique opportunity to capture irreplaceable moments. I especially love the challenge of trying to document birds in flight.

The best advice I could give to any amateur is to be patient. Sometimes waiting for the right moment has the greatest results. If I hadn’t camped out in a friend’s backyard for hours, I would have never had the opportunity to photograph the yellow northern cardinal!

When I photographed exotic birds at the Birmingham Zoo, patience was everything. Many people would come and go but I’d spend hours outside one enclosure hoping to photograph the best possible image of the bird. I’ve noticed that when you’re more comfortable and still, birds tend to be less fearful of you. I also would recommend investing in telephoto lens (zoom), for those moments when you don’t want to scare a bird away but want the opportunity for the best portraits. Check out the ultimate guide to backyard bird photography.

Eurasian Owl Yellow Northern Cardinal Jeremy Black 2

How Will This Yellow Cardinal Bird Change the Way You See and Photograph the World?

Since photographing this yellow cardinal, my life has changed significantly. It’s the most humbling experience to share my work with the world, because for years I wanted people to pay attention to wildlife and conservation more specifically. It’s wonderful to know that so many sources, platforms, and people on social media were interested in something that has been my passion for so long. I’ve had teachers send me portraits of their classrooms where children are drawing the cardinal! Learn how to get kids excited about birding.

To be able to impact so many with only two portraits is the best feeling in the world. When I was younger I looked up to my idol: Joel Sartore, a National Geographic photographer who specializes in wildlife. He inspired me, so to know that there might be a kid out there that’s inspired by my photography… it makes me grateful that I pursued something I love. Most people aren’t presented with that opportunity.

This photograph taught me that there are so many things in the world I haven’t been exposed to yet. There is so much wildlife that many of us take for granted until they are gone, and I hope to document as much as possible through my lens. I want to be a voice for those that don’t have one. I want to be an inspiration for those that are passionate about wildlife and birding.

Check out 6 proven ways to attract cardinals.

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.