Yellow cardinal (Gubernatrix cristata)

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Yellow cardinal perched on branch
IUCN Red List species status – Endangered ENDANGERED

Top facts

  • The yellow cardinal is a large, beautifully patterned finch with a melodic song.
  • Both the male and female yellow cardinal have a striking black crest and throat, but the female is duller in colour than the male.
  • The yellow cardinal usually forages on the ground for seeds and grains, but also eats insects and fruit.
  • The yellow cardinal’s colourful plumage and sweet song have made it hugely popular in the cage bird trade.
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Yellow cardinal fact file

Yellow cardinal description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyEmberizidae
GenusGubernatrix (1)

A large, beautifully patterned finch with a musical song (2) (3), the yellow cardinal (Gubernatrix cristata) is one of the most treasured and highly sought-after cage birds in South America (3) (5) (6). The male yellow cardinal is easily identifiable by the contrast of its long, jet-black crest and throat with its bright yellow ‘eyebrow’ and ‘moustache’ stripes (2) (7). Its back and wings are greenish-yellow, thoroughly streaked with black, adding to the olive-yellow colour of the rest of the yellow cardinal’s body. The yellow gets brighter closer to the belly, while the tail is also yellow and has a central black stripe (2) (3).

The female yellow cardinal has similar colouration to the male, but the female’s colours are much duller. Unlike the male, the female has white rather than yellow areas around the black throat and crest (2) (5) (7). Usually, the female’s chest and sides are also more grey than yellow (2) (3) (7), and the belly is paler than in the male (2). Both the male and female yellow cardinal have a robust, conical beak (3).

One of the reasons why the yellow cardinal is in such demand as a cage bird is its sweet, melodic song, which comes in sets of four or five whistles (2), described as ‘wert, wrée-cheeu, sweét? wrée-cheeu, sweet?(7).

Synonyms
Coccothraustes cristata.
Spanish
Cardenal Amarillo.
Size
Length: 20 cm (2) (3)
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Yellow cardinal biology

The yellow cardinal feeds on grains and seeds that have fallen on the ground, as well as on fruit, worms and insects (3) (5). This species is usually found alone or in pairs, but has been known to travel in larger flocks during the non-breeding season (5) (7), particularly when it was more abundant in the past (7).

This bird mates in the spring of the southern hemisphere (2), typically constructing its nest between September and November (5), with eggs having been seen in November (2). The yellow cardinal makes a deep, round nest from twigs and straw, lining the inside with grasses, moss and lichens. The nests of this species are usually found in the branches or in a fork of a tree or shrub (3).

The female yellow cardinal usually lays two to four eggs (3) (5), and incubates them for approximately two weeks before the chicks hatch (5). The eggs are of a whitish to blue-green colour with black streaks and freckles (3). During the first week, yellow cardinal chicks grow very fast and when they are just 13 to 14 days old they start to leave the nest to perch on the surrounding branches. When this species is bred in captivity, both adults contribute to feeding the young, but the female spends more time keeping the nest warm while the male brings greater amounts of food. The yellow cardinal chicks become independent at around 35 days old (5).

Yellow cardinal males are very territorial and aggressive towards other males, and will try to chase intruders away. This particular behaviour is taken advantage of by trappers, as they will place a caged yellow cardinal in another’s territory to draw it towards the intruder (3).

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Yellow cardinal range

The yellow cardinal was once abundant in the south-eastern tip of Brazil, in Uruguay and in much of central Argentina (2) (3) (7), occurring up to elevations of around 700 metres (2). It is now uncommon to find this species in many of these areas, except in some isolated pockets such as in San Luis, Buenos Aires, La Pampa and Río Negro in Argentina, and in a few parts of Uruguay (2).

Although it formerly occurred in Rio Grande do Sul, in south-eastern Brazil, it is thought that the yellow cardinal may now be extinct there (2).

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Yellow cardinal habitat

This beautiful bird lives in open areas with shrubby trees and scrub, including savannah, open woodland and steppe (2) (3) (7). The yellow cardinal perches on shrubs and trees and usually forages on the ground (3) (5) (7).

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Yellow cardinal status

The yellow cardinal is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).

IUCN Red List species status – Endangered

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Yellow cardinal threats

The major threats to the yellow cardinal are trapping for the cage bird market and loss of habitat (2). Despite this species being protected, continued illegal trade is still the most significant threat to its populations (2) (3) (5) (6), which are now small and fragmented (2).

Many of the different habitats in which the yellow cardinal lives are being demolished for timber for furniture and firewood, or are being converted into cattle pastures or eucalyptus plantations (2) (6). Also, this species has been found to hybridise with the common diuca-finch (Diuca diuca), potentially adding to the threats the yellow cardinal faces (2).

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Yellow cardinal conservation

The yellow cardinal is protected in Argentina and Uruguay, and trapping of this bird is illegal (5) (6). In Uruguay, possessing yellow cardinals is prohibited unless they are ringed (5). This species is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that international trade in the yellow cardinal should be controlled (4).

The yellow cardinal inhabits a few of the national parks in Argentina, including Sierra de las Quijadas, Lihue Calel and El Palmar National Parks and Chancaní Provincial Reserve (2), as well as Pichi Mahuida Natural Reserve (8). Scientists have also proposed creating other conservation areas in Argentina as well as certain parts of Uruguay containing habitat for the yellow cardinal (2).

Captive breeding programmes have been established for the yellow cardinal in Brazil and Uruguay in an attempt to reintroduce the species in some areas, as well as to decrease the pressure of trapping on the wild populations (2) (5). Conservation measures are underway to inform the public of the threats to the yellow cardinal, and more action is also needed to prevent further illegal trade in this attractive species (2) (3).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

Find out more about the yellow cardinal and its conservation:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

This species information was authored as part of the ARKive and Universities Scheme.
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Glossary

Hybridisation
Cross-breeding between two different species or subspecies.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Steppe
A vast grassland plain, characterised by few trees and low rainfall.
Territorial
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
Territory
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. BirdLife International - Yellow cardinal (November, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=9078
  3. Cardenal Amarillo (November, 2011)
    http://www.cardenalamarillo.org.ar/
  4. CITES (June, 2013)
    http://www.cites.org/
  5. Soto, H. (2003) Introducción a la cria del cardenal amarillo. In: El Canario Uruguayo” - Revista de Ornitología - Cientifica - Técnica - Práctica. Órgano Oficial de ACRU (Asociación de Canaricultores Roller de Uruguay), Uruguay. Available at:
    http://www.ornitouy.com/Introducci%F3n_a_la_cr%EDa_del__Cardenal_Amarillo%28Hugo_Soto%29.pdf
  6. Pessino, M. and Tittarelli, R.F. (2006) The yellow cardinal (Gubernatrix cristata): a diagnosis of its situation in the province of La Pampa, Argentina. Gestión Ambiental, 12: 69-76.
  7. Ridgely, R.S. and Tudor, G. (2009) Field Guide to the Songbirds of South America: The Passerines. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
  8. Subsecretaría de Ecología - Reserva Natural Pichi Mahuida (November, 2011)
    http://www.ecologialapampa.gov.ar/reserva-natural-pichi-mahuida.html
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Image credit

Yellow cardinal perched on branch  
Yellow cardinal perched on branch

© Santiago Imberti / www.seriematours.com

Santiago Imberti
imberti@seriematours.com
http://www.seriematours.com

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