Cardinal bird

Image by outtakes/Getty Images

You never know what you might see when you are watching for wildlife. That’s what Shirley and Jeffrey Cardwell of Erie, Pennsylvania found when spotted a half-male, half-female cardinal in their garden.

About the hybrid cardinal

The unique bird stood out immediately because it had both the well-known appearance of the scarlet male cardinal and the less flashy, brownish/gray appearance of the female. The bird was so close (s)he was just 30 feet from their kitchen window and the couple snapped a photo.

The bird sighting quickly went viral through social media and was covered by publications including the New York Times, National Geographic and a host of other news outlets and blogs.

The biology of dual-sexed organisms

The condition the bird has, where an organism’s biology and appearance is half-male and half-female, is called bilateral gynandromorphism. It has been seen in a variety of species including birds, insects, and crustaceans. Sometimes the visual appearance of a dual-sexed organism isn’t very dramatic. A cardinal may have patches of scarlet and areas of brown, for example. Other times, the look is hard to believe.

Examples of stunning dual-sexed organisms are readily available. Photos of a lobster with half brown and half mottled red/white are easy to find. Butterflies have been shown with the right pair of wings presenting as one color and the left pair of wings as an entirely different hue. A half-male, half-female chicken from the 1920s was said to present entirely as one gender when viewed from the left side, and entirely a second gender when viewed from the right. After death, the owner preserved the bones of the animal, showing the skeleton to be markedly larger on one side than on the other.

Chromosomal anomalies generally cause gynandromorphism. The specifics of how it can happen varies from species to species and is still being understood. In birds, females have a Z and a W chromosome and males have two Z chromosomes. When a cell loses one of their chromosomes, there are dramatic consequences for the sex of the organism.

It is difficult to know how frequently gynandromorphism appears in nature since it doesn’t always present as dramatically as it did for this cardinal. If it is not visually obvious, it may go undocumented. Click here to learn more about the phenomenon.

Wildlife watching 101

While it was easy for the Cardwells to see that their bird was unique, other rare birds and wildlife aren’t as easy to identify. It can be fun to try, however. Finding a guidebook and a strong set of binoculars may help.

The best times for wildlife watching are generally at dawn and at dusk. Know the environment that you’ll be in and pay attention to your clothing. If you’re going to be in grassy areas or out during strong sun, long-sleeved shirts and pants will help protect against ticks and sunburn. It is good to bring a notebook or journal so that you can keep a list or set of drawings of the wildlife you encounter. Most wildlife watchers also bring a camera to document what they see.

Some wildlife watchers prefer to go solo, but many go in groups as long as everyone can be quiet during the session. Some families may take up the hobby together, or couples may use it as a way to spend time with each other. There are also wildlife watching clubs which can be a great way for new members to learn from others with more experience. Some of these clubs may even go out after a viewing session and share notes about what they saw.

However you begin your wildlife watching, you may find you enjoy spending time outdoors as you learn more about the natural world and the peace of the outdoors. Once you start, you may even find that wildlife watching will become a life-enriching hobby that stays with you for years.