Rare Yellow Cardinal Bird Sighting Reported in Florida

Yellow cardinals are rare, beautiful birds — and birders in Florida have reported a recent sighting of this uniquely colored cardinal.

Through the years, occasional sightings of bright yellow cardinals have 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, but a yellow cardinal? That bird catches the eye and the imagination. Psst—if you see a cardinal, here’s what it means.

In recent years, birders have spotted a yellow cardinal in Alabama and Illinois. Now a birder (and Birds & Blooms field editor!) from Florida has spotted a yellow cardinal bird in Gainesville. Here’s what we know.

Why is the Yellow Cardinal Not a Red Bird?

Northern cardinals get their vivid red color from pigments in their food called carotenoids. Foods with yellow pigments transform 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 sick or stressed by environmental factors, causing the same problem. Without DNA testing, it’s impossible to know for certain.

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When Did the Yellow Cardinal Appear in Gainesville, Florida?

Yellow Cardinal 4Courtesy Tom Dotson
Yellow cardinal in Gainesville, Florida

Tom Dotson, Birds & Blooms field editor who lives in Florida, says he learned of the bird’s appearance from Facebook groups and a USA Today article. “They all kind of talked about him and said he was in a specific area, and I thought, Well, that’s not that far,” Tom says. “For about a month, I decided I’d take the trip up.” He’s made several trips to see the bird since.

Tom first went to Gainesville to spot the yellow cardinal on March 13, 2022. The yellow cardinal is located on the outskirts of the University of Florida campus — it’s an unexpected location for such an incredibly rare and exciting bird. “It was kind of surprising that of all the places he could pick, that would be the one,” he laughs. “But it’s a nice area that he’s in. Very pretty. He has good taste!”

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Finding the Yellow Cardinal

Yellow Cardinal 3Courtesy Tom Dotson
The bird looks the same as other cardinals but with yellow feathers.

When Tom arrived, there were two other birders there; one from Ohio and another he thinks was from Indiana. They located the bird within five minutes, and, thankfully, the yellow cardinal stayed within the same area the whole time Tom was there. He says that when he made a return trip, the bird was in that same location.

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Given the extreme rarity of the bird, finding the yellow cardinal was a special moment for Tom. “I have never seen another one,” he says. “I had heard that they existed, but they’re supposed to be pretty rare — I wanted to be able to put my eyes on one if possible. Supposedly there’s eight or nine of them in the world at a given time, it’s just a matter of finding them!” Have you ever seen a red crested cardinal?

Yellow Cardinal 1Courtesy Tom Dotson
The yellow cardinal was spotted on the University of Florida campus.

Tom’s concern about the yellow cardinal is that the area in which it lives has had heavy rainfall lately. That might make food harder to find for the bird. But he also notes that there were about six other pairs of cardinals where the yellow bird was, so this species must like it there. “It’s a nice place for him,” he says.

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The field editor has traveled the state of Florida looking for birds, and he’s especially proud of a sighting of a pair of whooping cranes. The yellow cardinal, though, just might have surpassed them. “I have found a couple other pretty impressive lifers for me that I’m happy with, but with this one, knowing there’s only a few here and there, is special… this one probably takes No. 1,” he says.

Yellow Cardinal 2Courtesy Tom Dotson

Looking forward, Tom says he hopes to see the yellow cardinal again. “[It was] super, super interesting,” he says. “He’s a really cool bird. I hope he doesn’t get bombarded with so many people that he goes away, but it hasn’t happened so far, and he’s been on some pretty big platforms. I hope it dries out soon, because [the area] is under a lot of water… Hopefully he stays there, and I can go visit him.”

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Other Yellow Cardinal Bird Sightings

yellow cardinalJeremy Black
Yellow cardinal in Alabama

In February 2020, birder Chelsea Curry photographed a yellow cardinal in rural Rushville, Illinois. Auburn University biological sciences professor Geoffrey Hill confirmed the rare sighting. A few years before that, professional photographer Jeremy Black and Charlie Stevenson spotted a similar bird in Alabama.

“When the bird landed in her neighbor’s crape myrtle tree and I saw it for the first time, it took my breath away,” Jeremy said. “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.”

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Emily Hannemann
Emily Hannemann is an associate digital editor for Birds & Blooms. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in magazine writing from the University of Missouri - Columbia. When she’s not writing and editing, you’ll find her swimming, running, or hiking. She knows blue jays are controversial, but she loves them anyway.