Wildlife watchers have a chance to spot one of the rarest birds along the East Coast in a wooded area at the University of Florida.
Experts say Gainesville's newest feathered friend is a one-in-a million picturesque yellow cardinal.
While there are an estimated 15 million red cardinals across the eastern U.S., making it one of the most common birds in the wild, there are just 10 to 15 yellow cardinals flying around the region.
"I don’t know how many cardinals I have seen, maybe thousands," said Andy Kratter, the ornithology collections manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History. "This is the first yellow cardinal I have seen."
The newest wildlife attraction has been spotted near campus for several weeks. It has a vibrant yellow body with a black mask around its eyes and beak. The early morning sunlight enhances its brightness against the spring green foliage of the area.
The male canary-colored cardinal can be easily confused with the endangered yellow cardinal of South America, but there are significant differences, experts say.
North American cardinals are born with a brown or greyish color and will develop a more colorful plumage upon leaving their nests within the first month.
"The color comes from carotenoid pigments derived from the foods cardinals eat," explains Mark Hostetler, a professor in the Department of Wildlife Ecology & Conservation at UF/IFAS.”
The cardinal's yellow pigments come from a diet of seeds, grains and fruit, he added.
The yellow pigments are later converted to red by a specific enzyme in their bodies. If the enzyme is missing, the cardinal will be yellow instead of red, Hostetler said.
"It’s probably a rare genetic mutation, affecting fewer than one in a million," he said.
So what brought this feathered anomaly to Alachua County?
Kratter believes the bird, which some have referred to as "Tweets," was born among the latest round of cardinal babies close to UF's Natural Area Teaching Laboratory toward the end of 2021. Most cardinals have a lifespan of about three years.
The bird, which can be best spotted in the early morning hours, can often be found seen on the ground foraging for seeds and other foods or fluttering around, chirping in the wind while seeking a mate.
The likelihood of reproduction is largely unknown for these mutant birds. But a similar bird found in Alabama during 2019 may have ended those questions.
A yellow cardinal, named Mr. Yellow, became an internet sensation when he was photographer feeding chicks in a nest. Observers saw Mr. Yellow with a female for several months, then soon found the two tending to a nest with hatchlings. It's unclear if the yellow pigment was passed on to the babies.
"Tweets" has become quite a local celebrity himself.
“It's been non-stop talking about the bird in the local community,” Kratter said. “It's a show stopper."
But as exciting as it is to see such a rare bird in Gainesville, Debbie Segal, the president of the Alachua Audubon Society, said she hopes people stay respectful to the bird and its habitat by not getting too close to scare it off.
This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: One-in-a-million picturesque yellow cardinals spotted in Florida