Photographing a Phenomenon: The Yellow Northern Cardinal

Professional photographer Jeremy Black tells us about his experiences with the yellow Northern Cardinal, and offers bird photography tips.

By now, you’ve almost certainly seen the stunning photos of the bright yellow cardinal that have been fascinating 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 northern cardinal is bound to catch the eye and the imagination, and it surely has.

What’s Up With This 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. Scientists theorize this yellow northern cardinal 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.

What was it like to photograph a phenomenon?

Yellow Northern Cardinal Jeremy Black Headshot1Jeremy Black, Photographer
Jeremy Black, Photographer

We caught up with the photographer of this amazing find, 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.

Tell us about 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 Northern Cardinal Jeremy Black 2

Tell us more about the yellow northern cardinal experience.

My friend Charlie Stevenson opened up her home and yard to allow me the opportunity to photograph this cardinal, 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 crepe myrtle tree and I saw it for the first time, it took my breath away. It was sitting 15 feet away from me and 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 bird will always be special to you. Can you share some of your other favorite photograph subjects and 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 do you enjoy about photographing birds? What 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.

Eurasian Owl Yellow Northern Cardinal Jeremy Black 2

How will this yellow northern cardinal change the way you look at and photograph the world?

Since photographing this 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. Its 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!

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 has 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.

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.