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A Cardinal Tests the Limits of Sexual Diversity

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 30, 2015

This are brownish-gray feathers of a female cardinal on the right side a male cardinal's red feathers on the left. (Photo: Western Illinois University)

This are brownish-gray feathers of a female cardinal on the right side a male cardinal’s red feathers on the left.
(Photo: Western Illinois University)

So, yeah, I’m talking about a bird, and definitely not about a member of the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals.  A gynandromorph is an animal that has traits of both sexes, but this cardinal is truly Janus-faced, all female on one side, all male on the other.  Or rather, not like Janus. More like Tiresias, the male prophet in Greek mythology who spent seven years as a woman. Oh, hell, let’s just call it the Transgender Cardinal.

How did other cardinals react? “We never knowingly heard the gynandromorph cardinal vocalize nor was it obviously paired with another individual, whereas other cardinals in the area vocalized and were paired, especially as the breeding season approached.” But here’s the key line: “There were no unusual agonistic interactions between the gynandromorph and the other cardinals, although at times it appeared less likely to approach the seed when other cardinals were in the vicinity feeding.” So a little shy and confused. But other birds were basically o.k. with that.

Here’s the press release

Western Illinois University biological sciences Professor Brian Peer is receiving attention for his research and publication on a bilateral gynandromorph bird found in the wild.

More specifically, the bird has the brownish-gray feathered appearance of a female cardinal on its right side and that of a male cardinal’s red feathers on its left side.

The Northern Cardinal was spotted several years ago in Rock Island, IL by Peer and his colleague Robert Motz and was observed between December 2008 and March 2010. The two men documented how the cardinal interacted with other birds

on more than 40 occasions during that time period and how the bird responded to calls.

“Our paper represents the most detailed observations of a bilateral gynandromorph bird in the wild,” said Peer. ” We never observed the bird singing and never saw it paired with another cardinal. It was one of the most unusual and striking birds that I’ve ever seen.”

The research paper surrounding the unique bird, titled “Observations of a Bilateral Gynandromorph Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), was published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology in December and was then featured in Science magazine.

Peer’s primary research focus is on the coevolutionary interaction between avian brood parasites and their hosts.

Cropped for closer view

Cropped for closer view

Journal Reference:

  1. Brian D. Peer and Robert W. Motz. Observations of a Bilateral Gynandromorph Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, December 2014, Vol. 126, No. 4, pp. 778-781

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