World’s loneliest cardinals

The Illinois cardinal

I did a double take this morning when I spotted the picture of the half ‘n’ half cardinal, above. Bizarre, isn’t it? As the Huffington Post article explains, this northwestern Illinois bird, first seen in 2008, has what biologists call bilateral gynandromorphism. It is essentially half male (the red side) and half female because its sex chromosomes didn’t segregate properly after fertilization. And unlike normal cardinals, this bird was never heard singing nor seen pairing up with another cardinal.

Another such cardinal was reported and photographed in Dallas, Texas, three years ago. Like the Illinois bird, that cardinal did not sing and never took a mate. In 2011 it was chased from the area by other territorial males, but it survived and returned two years later.

These two birds, interesting as they are to look at, sadden me. They must have led uncharacteristically lonely lives. And it’s hard to imagine any cardinal alone and never singing.

Cardinals have long been my favorite songbird. Through most of my life, wherever I lived, there have been cardinals — usually in pairs and nesting right outside my door. Their bright color, cheery song, and year round presence were always a part of “home.” Then I moved to Colorado and as much as I love it, there are no cardinals here. It’s almost like the one thing the state needs to be perfect.

This is the Dallas cardinal. For many more images, see Larry P. Amman’s gallery.
(Image: Larry P. Ammann)

Readers might also be interested in Alabama’s yellow cardinal.

21 thoughts on “World’s loneliest cardinals

    1. It’s nice the spotters got good photos. These birds won’t live forever, although I found a chart that lists the average lifespan of cardinals at 15 yrs 9 mos. Much longer than I would have guessed.

  1. Interesting. I never read about this, but I will be on the lookout now. We (or at least I) forget that the same types of genetic errors that happen in humans happen in other animals. I suppose, then, it is incapable of reproduction. It’s sad that it is not welcome among the others, but it’s a beautiful bird still.

    1. I’d never seen or heard of such a thing so I really did a double take when I saw the picture. I think the article meant other males took him/her as a male and that’s why they chased him away. But apparently female birds did not see him as male, or he probably would have had a mate.

  2. i remember winters in far northern minnesota. the birds simply disappeared. the silence without their cheery songs was deafening. i never want to experience that again. how i love them.
    a bittersweet post in that it’s so beautiful to see these rare beings … and learn of them …
    yet knowing how lonely they truly must be always alone is terrible.
    and in all my years of watching them… and we have lots of cardinals here… i never knew of this! thank you.

  3. How sad, what a pity they couldn’t be caught and housed together for companionship, I’m against caging animals but in an instance like this I think it would be nice to have these birds living in their own community.

    I’m now intrigued and want to hear their song, funny thing I have a hearing loss of more than 70% yet I can still hear the warbling of birds quite clearly, it hadn’t occurred to me before reading your post PT but it brought this home to me; I wonder why I can still hear them clearly. Very strange. I particularly enjoy the song of our magpies.

    1. I think it would be cruel to catch and cage a wild songbird. They have other birds around in the wild; they just have no mate. But perhaps more importantly, they have their freedom and natural habitat.

      There are dozens of places on the internet to hear recorded bird calls. There are 10 different recorded cardinal songs and calls on the Audubon Society’s website.

      1. Yes but in a large aviary where they could fly around and be with like creatures I don’t think that would be nearly as cruel as leaving them all alone and sad. And I thought you said they can’t sing., so they’re not rearly songbirds are they? They need some loving that’s for sure. 🙁

  4. These androgynous cardinals are one more piece of evidence that the biological is more suffused with genetic diversity than was once thought. We see it in the human population. Some people are ultra sexual, some are hardly so at all – couldn’t be less interested. Most variants fail, but a few survive. Variation is the engine of evolution. I would love to see how we turn out, providing we don’t kill ourselves off first.

    1. I suppose the question with these birds is whether they just have no urge to mate and reproduce or whether, as I suspect, they are simply incapable of reproducing.

      Goodness knows how the human animal will evolve. I sometimes think if I lived long enough I’d evolve into one of those Star Trek creatures that is only a brain in a jar, with my thoughts doing everything and no need for arms, legs, etc. Hmm, but I never thought to ask how they reproduce …

      1. Star Trek has marked many of us with ideas that may actually (grimly?) become real?
        – and before that the old “Brain that wouldn’t die” – I remember that BW jar image…will have to find that one
        What a sad little bird – so beautiful, but shunned. No flock, no mate, and no song? Oh, my. Nature has harsh oders.

  5. This is, indeed, a sad freak occurrence of Nature. Being a native of Ohio, where the Cardinal is the recognized state bird, I have photographed many Cardinal singles and pairs. A couple years ago, I was privileged to follow a pair in their nesting procedure and the resulting laying of three Cardinal eggs, a much happier circumstance than the one you’ve recorded. This is truly an astounding event to share, as is the “yellow” Alabama Cardinal you were able to give us. Fascinating stories of Nature! Thank you, PT!

    1. The yellow cardinal is very handsome, I’ll admit, but I still prefer my cardinals as nature intended. And I can’t tell you how much I miss them here in the Denver area.

... and that's my two cents