Where does the Northern Cardinal get its stunning red color?

By: Sarah Jenevein, Travis Audubon Volunteer

At this time of year, it’s common to see a flash of red amongst leafless branches as Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) flutter from branch to branch. But where do these birds get their stunning colors?
Scientists have discovered the red in cardinals’ feathers comes from chemical pigments called carotenoids–the same family of pigments that give carrots, ripe tomatoes, and autumn leaves their colors!

The red of a cardinal’s feathers comes from the nutrients in its food, which means that the better a bird is eating, the richer its color! So bright plumage isn’t just pretty… it’s a sign of the bird’s overall fitness, which can be attractive to potential mates.

However, it turns out not all cardinals have a classic red wardrobe! Albinism in cardinals can lead to a failure to produce red pigment on most or all of the body. Albino cardinals have white bodies with spots of red on their crests and wings.
 

And it gets even weirder! Recently, this cardinal was spotted in Alabama with a complete set of banana-yellow feathers. Scientists are still arguing about what might have caused the bird’s condition. While most scientists think the yellow color is the result of genetic mutation, some have hypothesized a poor diet and environmental stressors. Luckily, the bird’s bizarre color seems to have had no effect on its mating prospects–it has produced at least one chick this year!

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