Are there Yellow Cardinals?

are there yellow cardinals?

Birds are known to come in many different colors. Even birds of a similar species have been known to experience shifts in their physical appearance. In some instances, this might identify them as a different type of bird within the species itself. However, in others, the same type of bird might simply look different due to environmental factors.


There are many different elements that play a role in how a bird appears, which is why bird owners know to look at their bird’s general appearance to address dietary problems or disease. In the same way that you might grow pale if you don’t eat much iron, a different meal might affect a bird differently. One of the most unique topics of discussion has been the Yellow Cardinal. This bird has been dropping jaws when spotted, but there is more to the story here than a new species being found.

Table of Contents

Does A Yellow Version of the Cardinal Exist?

The simple answer here is: yes. An online search will show you that there have been several instances of a cardinal that appears to be yellow. In fact, the images show a cardinal that is actually completely gold. Since it has been confirmed that this bird does, in fact, exist, why is there so much speculation about it?

If The Yellow Cardinal Is Not A New Type of Cardinal, Then What Is It?

As if this entire ordeal with the yellow cardinal is not already confusing enough, we must first address the fact that it is, in fact, a cardinal. What is strange about this cardinal is that it is not a new type of cardinal. The yellow cardinal that is being shared online is a fairly new creature to behold, but it is not actually a new type of cardinal at all. 


You might be getting the idea that there is a mythical golden cardinal that is nearly impossible to find and hides away deep within the forest, but this isn’t the case. In reality, the golden cardinals that have been documented have all been other kinds of cardinals. The most recent one, which was spotted in 2018, was actually a Northern Cardinal.



When you look at a Northern Cardinal, it is fairly easy to see that they are not yellow in the slightest. In fact, they are often shown as a vibrant display of orange or red in most settings. Upon confirming that this Northern Cardinal was a stark and vibrant gold, it was up to scientists to explain what could possibly result in such a bold change in appearance. 


Every bird is known to have slight changes in its general appearance and pattern, but coming out a completely new color is well beyond normal for the majority of animals. It became the task of scientists to understand what could result in such a unique change that seems to defy the very laws of nature.

Understanding Xanthochroism

In its simplest form, xanthochroism is a rare condition that causes certain animals to come out yellow when they would not ordinarily be. It is has been spotted in many different kinds of animals, including various types of birds as well as frogs. 


Though you might think that this vibrant golden appearance is a bit of an upgrade for a cardinal, the reality isn’t that simple. There are two ways to obtain xanthochroism: a rare genetic mutation and diet. Depending on how the condition is obtained, it might be temporary or it might be permanent. Since the bird was never formally tested, this was simply offered as the most plausible theory.



Xanthochroism is an incredibly rare change to an animal’s appearance. In fact, this shift is not only rare among animals, but it is considered to be rare compared to other odd conditions and mutations. A study at Cornell University actually found that out of all of the strange-looking birds with obvious atypical appearances, xanthochroism was only seen in 4% of them. 


Specifically in animals, it is characterized by the replacement of red feathers or skin with yellow instead. This is why it is so bold and apparent on a cardinal. The once red bird replaced its signature red feathers with a vibrant shade of gold.

Carotenoids and Color Pigmentation

Carotenoids are pigments within several food products that can influence the way that a bird appears. In many instances, these pigments are responsible for the color that you will see in a bird’s feathers, particularly the most vibrant ones. These pigments are red, orange, and yellow. Since these carotenoids can play such a large role in the coloration of feathers, it comes as no surprise that they might be hinting at an underlying health condition. In this instance, the yellow cardinals and other yellow birds that have been seen flying around might not be getting certain carotenoids out of their diet


You might be wondering why this matters. After all, carotenoids can offer yellow coloring, it should be fine that the bird is yellow instead of the typical red color, right? In truth, it is hard to say. The fact that this bird is meant to be red and is showing up yellow might imply a few things about its diet or what is happening when its body absorbs nutrients.


On one hand, these unique yellow birds might simply be keeping a whacky diet. Animals are amazing and well-known for their ability to adapt to new circumstances. It is possible that some of these birds have simply gotten a bit adventurous with their food supply, and to some extent that might be fine. On the other hand, it might imply a certain underlying condition that is keeping the birds from absorbing certain carotenoids or even nutrients. Over time, this might have an impact on the health of the bird.

The Potential For Genetic Anomalies

The fact is that until these birds are actively studied, there is no real way to determine whether it is diet-related or a genetic condition. Birds can shift in appearance quite a bit as they grow older, and it is completely possible that the golden color on these birds is temporary. 


However, there might be something else at work here. The fact is that there are many different factors that could play a role in the coloring of these birds. It is actually possible that these yellow cardinals are a unique gold color for completely different reasons from one bird to the next. However, one of the options is simply that they possess a genetic mutation.


Genetic mutations are incredibly rare, but they do happen and they can dramatically alter the appearance of an animal. We have all seen images of two-headed snakes and albino bears. The fact is that nature can get a bit tricky from one generation to the next, and it can change some creatures to look completely different than their peers. 


This would not be the first time that genetics have played a role in creating a unique looking bird and it certainly won’t be the last. Whether it is a rare genetic condition that alters the way that these birds absorb nutrients or it is simply a cosmetic change, it is possible that some of these birds were simply born that way.

The Real Yellow Cardinal

Gubernatrix cristata

Now that we have determined that there is no “yellow cardinal” we must address the fact that there is, in fact, a Yellow Cardinal. The real reason that we have had to explain how a yellow cardinal can’t naturally exist is because one does actually exist. These altered golden birds are not the Yellow Cardinal that exists in South America.


The Yellow Cardinal, a bird known for its endangered status, cannot be found in North America. This bird is known to live in areas like Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. It is the only bird that can rightfully go by the title of Yellow Cardinal, and with what it has gone through, it deserves it. In fact, this unique and beautiful bird is nearly extinct because of illegal bird trappers. These individuals swooped in and thinned out the population of these birds in the wild because they were so heavily sought after.


These beautiful birds are considered to be finch-like in appearance and size. They do not really resemble their northern cousins at all. In fact, these birds are a completely different species from the cardinals that can be found in North America. Their unique coloring and appearance, which includes a bright yellow and olive green, is known to vary significantly from one bird to the next. Many people find that these birds are completely unique in more ways than one.


The Yellow Cardinal is known to spend its days feasting on various seeds, insects, and more. Since these birds are found in South America and not North America, the seeds that they eat and the insects that they eat are generally different from what you might expect. The crickets, beetles, and grasshoppers that currently fill their diets are not the ones that you will see on the ground in North America at all.


The world has been graced with many different yellow cardinals, but only one true Yellow Cardinal. As more of the altered yellow cardinals make their appearance, it seems likely that scientists might get a better chance to study them and see what it is that they bring to the table. For now, the mystery of the yellow cardinals will have to wait until we can take a closer look. Either way, there is no denying that cardinals look great in yellow!


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About Us

We are avid bird-watchers who recently retired, allowing us more time to travel the world. Fortunately, we have managed to visit numerous countries around Europe, Asia, and America. Watching and photographing birds has been a passion for many years and we are making the most of the extra time on our hands!

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