Prepare for a bit of envy, fellow birdwatchers: This “once-in-a-lifetime” cardinal showed up just in time for Jamie Hill, a Pennsylvania birder of over 48 years.
What’s a birdwatcher to do when a friend mentions an “unusual bird” at their bird feeders? Go and document it, of course. Such is the case for Pennsylvania birder Jamie Hill, a gent with nearly 50 years of the hobby under his belt.
After gathering his photography equipment, Hill made the journey to nearby Grand Valley, PA. Yet he could hardly believe the specimen form himself once it showed.
“I had a once-in-a-lifetime, one in a million bird encounter!” he writes in his Facebook reveal. Before him sat a gorgeous and “unusual bird,” indeed: a half-male, half-female cardinal.
The incredibly rare bird, seen in Hill’s photos below, is “indeed a cardinal with extremely rare bilateral gynandromorphism, which means it is genetically half male and half female,” Hill continues in his post. “This bird would have a functioning ovary on its left side and a functioning single testis on its right. Theoretically, this bird could either mate with a normal male cardinal and lay fertile eggs, or it could mate with a normal female cardinal and father her eggs!”
I have been birding for 48 years and yesterday (20 February 2021) I had a once-in-a-lifetime, one in a million bird…Posted by Jamie Hill on Sunday, February 21, 2021
Bilateral Gynandromorph Cardinal Stuns PA Birders
As for Hill’s photos, each comes courtesy of the cardinal’s cooperative stay at the friend’s feeder. “Thankfully it perched out in the open briefly in two other trees and I was able to shoot about 50 images, he states, adding that those made public are the best ones he “could capture in a one-hour stay.”
Bilateral gynandromorphs are extremely rare, but not unheard of. In fact, this is the second one to show in Pennsylvania in the past two years. Back in 2019, a birding couple in Erie, PA, spotted a similar cardinal on their feeders. The duo managed a few snapshots, as well.
“Their photos,” Hill notes. “Made it into the National Geographic Magazine, the New York Times, and many national birding magazines. That’s how rare and interesting this condition is. Could this bird be the same individual as the Erie, PA, bird? Possibly,” he ponders.
Remarkably, the 2019 cardinal was also female on the left and male on the right, just like Hill’s. “The condition can be the other way around, with male left and female right,” he states.
How Rare are Bilateral Gynandromorph Birds?
As it turns out, “half-siders,” like this gorgeous cardinal, may be a bit more common than we think. We only tend to notice those, however, that occur within sexually dimorphic species. This term describes species where the male and female appear radically different. Such is the case with North America’s beautiful cardinals: where the males are of a striking, bright apple red – and the females tend to sport a rich, sandy caramel coloration.
Dr. Daniel Hooper, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, spoke on the condition in Nat Geo’s 2019 feature. He
“Cardinals are one of the most well-known sexually dimorphic birds in North America,” Dr. Hooper states. “Their bright red plumage in males is iconic [with females being buffy brownish] — so people easily notice when they look different.”
As for how this occurs, Dr. Hooper notes that “”sex determination in birds is a little different than in mammals. In mammals, males have one copy of each sex chromosome (X and Y) while females have two copies of the X chromosome. In birds, it’s the opposite. Their sex chromosomes are called Z and W, and it’s the females that have a single copy of each (ZW), whereas the males have two of the same (ZZ).”
“Sex cells’ nuclei, including sperm and eggs, usually have only one copy of either chromosome – males produce only Z-carrying sperm, and females produce either Z- or W-carrying eggs,” he continues.
As a result, “Gynandromorphy, like that in this cardinal, occur when a female egg cell develops with two nuclei — one with a Z and one with a W — and it’s “double fertilized” by two Z-carrying sperm.”
In October of 2020, Outsider.com reported on another remarkable gynandromorph with photos. The discovery? A Rare Half-Male, Half-Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
More recently, we’ve seen the discovery of a Yellow Penguin: Wildlife Photographer Captures Incredible Pic of ‘Never-Before-Seen’ Bird.
For all the latest outdoor headlines, stick with your fellow Outsiders at Outsider.com.