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Zanesville's Yellow Cardinal, revisited

Last Friday, I found myself heading off east on Interstate 70, car-surfing a six hour straight line all the way to York, Pennsylvania. A tedious drive indeed, but one that would bring me into close proximity to Tom Ruggles' back yard in Zanesville, Ohio. Tom's been hosting a most special visitor for half a decade; an animal that I really wanted to see.

Tom was good enough to allow me to stop by on my way to PA, and I did. This is a quick Droid snapshot of their backyard, a woody place indeed. Tom has created a virtual arboretum, and as we shall see, it doubles as a cageless aviary.

We were joined by Susan Nash, a local birder who also wanted to see Tom's special feathered guest. Susan is an artist, and in one those cool coincidences, the Ruggles' happened to have one of her works hanging on the wall by the front door. Take a virtual trip to her gallery, Studio 202, HERE.

I was clicking off photos rapidfire in burst mode, as subjects galore presented themselves nearly at arm's length at the battery of feeders on the back deck. Carolina Chickadees were numerous.

One of the feeder bullies, a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

There was a decent influx of Pine Siskins this winter, and a flock was hanging out in Tom's conifers. Nice looking specimens such as this would make periodic trips to the thistle feeders.

Another boreal irruptive that swamped the landscape this winter is the Red-breasted Nuthatch, and at least four individuals were constantly in and out of the feeders.

White-breasted Nuthatches were also common. Note the greatly elongated hind toe on this animal, all the better for bark climbing headfirst.

This was our target, however, and what an incredible bird! It's "just" a Northern Cardinal, but it's obviously not just any old cardinal. This male exhibits a genetic anomaly known as xanthochroism. The "yellowbird" is a seasoned veteran, having frequented the Ruggles' feeders for five years. I've written about the bird before, who has been dubbed Jeffrey by their grandchildren, HERE and HERE.

I've wanted to lay eyes on this cardinal since Tom first shared photos of it, and made an attempt last year. After waiting and watching for three hours, I gave up, a defeated man. Jeffrey does not constantly hang at the feeders. He is quite intermittent in his visits, and usually doesn't stay long. However, we scored quickly this day - he popped in just minutes after my arrival and returned once or twice. All told, he wasn't there long though, and I didn't have the opportunity to leisurely click off lots of shots.

A question that anyone would ask: Why is this normally brilliant scarlet bird yellow? I'll excerpt what I wrote about xanthochroism from a prior post:

This cardinal is exhibiting a condition known as xanthochroism, a genetic anomaly that causes an excess of yellow pigments to show through. It may be caused by darker pigments being suppressed, thus permitting less dominant colorations to shine through.
If we are to get a bit propeller-headed here, the bright red plumage of Northern Cardinals is caused by at least nine different carotenoid pigments. Knock one or some of them out of whack, and we can end up with the bird in the photo or something similar. In my previous post, there is a (bad) photo of a heavily leucistic Red-tailed Hawk. That bird is displaying the effects of yet another genetic anomaly, but one that causes the individual to appear much whiter or paler than normal.

Carotenoids occur in plants and some animals, and birds uptake them as part of their natural diet. It's possible that xanthochroic individuals, like Tom's cardinal, result from dietary deficiencies. A well-known example of the role of carotenoids and bird coloration involves flamingos. If deprived of the blue-green algae and brine shrimp that are rich in beta carotenes that gives them their bright pink plumage, the birds become pale and whitish. By providing captive flamingos with a compound called canthaxanthin, the rich pink coloration can be restored.

Xanthochroism has been documented in a number of bird species, in addition to Northern Cardinals, including: House Finch, Cape May Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, and Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Another question that begs an answer: Does Jeffrey successfully manage to attract a mate and participate in the production of offspring? We don't know. Tom watches for signs of a mate and pair bonding each year, but hasn't yet seen anything. However, Jeffrey seems quite furtive and apparently spends much of his time elsewhere, so it may be hard to pin down his relationship status.

The oldest documented wild Northern Cardinal reached nearly 17 years of age. This fine golden specimen is already at least five years old. With luck, it will live for many more years, delighting all who are fortunate enough to see it.


Lisa Rainsong said…
Thank you for the photos, the story and the explanation of what's going on with the unusual pigmentation. Your blog is endlessly fascinating!
Awesome to see such cool photos! I found this blog after seeing your photo included in a figure in the new review on carotenoid genetics in Trends in Genetics. One of the neatest photos I've seen in a scientific paper!
Mario Pizzino said…
Just saw one of these the other day in Akron Ohio. Very cool looking bird. Told my wife i saw a yellow bird that looked like a cardinal.. googled it and sure enough i was right

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