April 22, 2021

‘An Extremely Rare Phenomenon’: A Yellow Cardinal, Nicknamed ‘Sunny,’ Photographed In Florida

An exceptionally rare yellow northern cardinal with a genetic color mutation was spotted and photographed in Port St. Lucie.

‘Sunny’ the yellow northern cardinal has taken the world by storm. Ever since the rare bird was photographed Oct. 12 in the backyard of Port St. Lucie home-school teacher Tracy Workman, images of the cardinal have circulated nationwide, sparking conversation about the cardinal species and birds in general.

Facebook page was even set up to celebrate Sunny and the 1-in-a-million sighting.

While Sunny was a first for Florida, this is not the first time a yellow cardinal with a rare genetic color mutation has been photographed in the United States.

Jeremy Black

According to bird plumage expert Geoff Hill (Auburn University): “This cardinal is yellow because of a rare genetic mutation. The mutation is associated with fitness costs so it doesn’t spread in areas. It arises de nova once in a while.  I’ve looked at an estimated 50,000 cardinals in my lifetime and I’ve never seen a yellow one (except a museum specimen at LSU).”

Geoff and two colleagues published a paper based on the yellow Northern Cardinal in the LSU collection. A pdf version of the paper is available at www.biology.eku.edu/kos/kos_images/NOCA_pigments.pdf

Sightings Across the South

Jeremy Black, a professional Alabama-based photographer, captured images of what he believes was the first-ever photographically documented sighting of a yellow northern cardinal in Alabaster, Alabama in February 2018.

Since these first images were taken, Black has actively operated a Facebook community called The Yellow Cardinal, where he engages with community members and educates the public about the rare genetic mutation found in the bird species.

Jeremy Black, Photographer

“It started as a unique project,” Black said. ” But now I inform the public and raise awareness about the bird.”

Black added he wants the project to inspire people to “get more involved with nature.” He said he spends almost every weekend photographing the yellow northern cardinal he first documented in 2018, as the bird has remained in the area since it was first spotted.

On the Facebook page, Black updates the list of confirmed sightings that have popped up recently around the southern United States.

“We officially have 12 confirmed male Northern Cardinals with yellow plumage throughout the United States!” Black wrote to his audience of about 11,800 people Wednesday. “Each have been confirmed with timestamps, positive ID with the help of photographs, and information from each individual who has made the incredible discovery.”

Jeremy Black

According to Black’s records, here are the current confirmed yellow northern cardinal sightings. Click on the state name for more information about each sighting:

Black said Sunny is the first confirmed yellow northern cardinal sighting in Florida. He proudly spread the news of the finding to his online community of bird enthusiasts, old and new:

“This Northern Cardinal was spotted this past weekend in Port St. Lucie, Florida by Tracy Workman,” he wrote above one of her images. “She has named him Sunny and he is bringing his radiance to the Sunshine State.”

This is the full interview with the photographer provided by birdsandbloom.com:

“What was it like to photograph a phenomenon?”

“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.”

“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.”

Kumar, the Malayan Tiger – Jeremy Black

“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.”

Jeremy Black

“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.”

“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. 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!”

“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.”