ERIE, Pa. – Longtime bird watcher Jamie Hill knew he’d stumbled upon something rare.
The man from Waterford, Pennsylvania saw a northern cardinal who appeared to be male on the right and female on the left.
“It was one of the experiences of a lifetime,” said Hill of the bird, which was bright red like a male cardinal on one side and brownish white like a woman on the other.
Known as the bilateral gynandromorph, he described it as “a bird divided in half, half male and half female” that stood out as “quite unusual”. Hill photographed Cardinal Saturday in trees behind a residence in Warren County, Pennsylvania, about 55 miles southeast of Erie.
This had been brought to his attention by a friend of the homeowner’s who wanted to remain anonymous, and Hill refused to reveal the exact location.
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He said the rare cardinal “behaved normally”. In theory, however, he said that it could mate with either a female or a male cardinal, depending on which of its hormones were active during the mating season.
A similar bird captured by an Erie couple was featured in a January 2019 article by National Geographic. This bird, red on one side and brown on the other, was spotted and photographed by Jeffrey and Shirley Caldwell.
Daniel Hooper, then a postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said National Geographic gynandromorphs were unusual, but not uncommon. He also said they are more likely to be noticed in species where adult males and women look different, such as cardinals.
Hooper told the publication that the bird photographed by the Caldwells in 2019 may actually be fertile because the bird’s left side is female and only the left ovary is functional in birds. This also seems to be the case with the found bird hill.
Gynandromorphism in birds likely occurs when the egg the bird evolved from had two different sex chromosomes instead of just one, according to the journal Natural History.
Hill said he did not know if the bird he saw was the same as Caldwell’s, but he thought it was unlikely.
He encouraged other bird watchers to “keep your eyes open for this bird or a similar one”.
Hall, who was accompanied by girlfriend Annette Smith on Saturday, said the Warren County bird he photographed from his car while the cardinal was in a pine tree was seen from a distance even without binoculars.
He said he was “excited to photograph it, scientifically document it”.
Hall, 69, who has been watching birds for 48 years, said he has never seen one comparable to the bilateral gynandromorphic northern cardinal.
“That was the most exciting thing,” he said.
Follow reporter Dana Massing on Twitter @ETNmassing
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