A year ago September, a photographer caught this magnificent little bird on camera, feeding from an acquaintance’s birdfeeder. It isn’t often that one sees a two colored cardinal, much less one so strikingly differentiated – red on one side, white on the other.
The photographer is unnamed, but this is a quote taken from him, “As you can see, the left side is male and the right female. For two winters the bird appeared at the feeder of a retired high school biology teacher. I was able to observe it on several occasions, and noticed that it didn’t associate with other cardinals, nor did I hear it produce any vocalizations. We attempted to capture it with mist nets so that Rob Fleischer and I could get blood samples for further study, but we caught every bird in the neighborhood except this one! Alas, it never returned the third winter.”
I’m guessing the retired biology teacher is Rob Fleischer.
Anyway, they refer to this bird having two genders. That is because in cardinals, males have bright red plumage to attract mates, and to attract predators away from the family nest. The females plumage is dull by comparison and perfect for camouflage on the nest.
After I read the original article about this bird, I ran an eye over the comments below it. A lot of people think it’s photoshopped because the demarcation between the red and white is “too perfect.” Not really, look at this picture of the same bird:
What happened to this bird? Scientists think it’s a case of gynandromorphism, where, through an accident of development, an animal develops both traits of each sex of its species.
According to Wiki, a gynandromorph “is an organism that contains both male and female characteristics.” It’s seen fairly often in Lepidopterology (the study of butterflies and moths), and entomology (study of insects).
How this exactly happens is a very complicated explanation involving the best of your high school genetics course and all the associated XXs and YYs. Suffice to say, sometimes accidents happen during development and the genes can get mixed up in unique ways.
Wiki also states that gynandromorphy can be bilaterally asymmetrical (one side male, the other female), or it can present as a “mosaic” with traits from both sexes displayed throughout the organism. In the case of this cardinal, we’re talking bilaterally asymmetrical gynandromorphy.
It’s amazing what nature can throw at us, isn’t it? Even though this bird is at an evolutionary disadvantage, it still shines like a brilliant little jewel amongst the latticework of the tree branches.
I believe this is an important concept to keep in mind, especially for those of us who love to explore the realm of cryptids. Who knows what they may end up looking like?
Til the next time!