The terms and symbols used in pigeon genetics sometimes look a bit funny to the average breeder and tend to be a bit intimidating to many. The feeling seems to be: I'm not intelligent enough to understand them. Therefore, I won't even bother to try. Yet, as fanciers, we casually use many, much-more esoteric terms and symbols every day. Don't believe me? Try screaming, "Look at the color on that peak-crested A.O.C. muffed cock. Too bad heís bishop-winged and has split eyes." See how many people at the mall know what you're talking about. Heck, just talking about a basic white-flighted blue check pied yearling will leave most people staring at you as if you were from outer space. Learning any jargon is simply a matter of taking it one step at a time. So let's try a few genetic steps today.
The first thing to realize is that genetics symbols are just that -- symbols. They have no existence in the real world. What they refer to may exist, but the symbols themselves are merely mnemonic devices for us poor humans who are struggling to understand the world around us. As breeders, we use many terms and abbreviations: OC for an old cock; frill for a bird which has the feathers of its chest growing in a reversed manner; groused for a bird which has a short feather covering on its legs. It's obviously easier for us to do so. Rather than having to stop and decribe each bird in detail every time, we concisely and accurately describe what we need to by using breeder jargon. Genetic symbols allow us to do the same thing. They make it easier for us to communicate information. Instead of needing half a page to describe a phenomenon, we simply use the correct symbol or term. But where do these symbols come from and what do they refer to? Let's start with the last part first.
The wild rock pigeon (Columba livia) is our starting point. This bird does not exist as an endemic species in North America. It's a feral (gone wild) bird here. Biologically, itís an African, Asian and European endemic species. The bird is blue bar, i.e., dove-gray with two black bars across its wings and a black subterminal tail bar. The animal has a dove-like head and weighs in at about eight ounces (227 grams). Both males and females have purplish-green iridescence on the neck and may have either a light or dark rump depending where in its range we check it out. There are also minor variations in plumage tone and eye cere color, again, depending on where we sample, but we are going to ignore those for the moment. Overall, the species is fairly uniform. This bird is the standard by which we judge mutations. Our domestic birds are descended from them by selection. Occasionally, among all these birds, wild, feral, or domestic, something different shows up -- maybe a bird with funny colored feathers or one whose smooth head feathers arenít so smooth anymore. Perhaps, they stick up a bit in the back of the neck or under the eye. If these differences can be passed on to the birdís descendants, we call them mutations.
There have been many mutations, some we find attractive and useful -- some we donít. A few of the ones we like and have named are rose (as on a Trumpeter) brown, crest, dilution, rolling, Checker, Spread and reduced. Because a good part of the genetic work with pigeons has been done in the United States, weíve used the English names of the mutations to provide the genetic symbols for them. Thus, rolling is ro, rose is ros, brown is b, crest cr, Checker C, and Spread S. Note one other thing we do when we use a genetic symbol. Some of them are listed with their first letter in lower case (small letter) and some in upper case (capital letter). Thatís because weíve arbitrarily decided as a rule that if we find any particular mutation is recessive to the wild-type condition, we indicate this with the lower case. Conversely, a mutation dominant to the wild-type condition is indicated by using a capital letter. Of course, not all the genetic work on pigeons has been done in the U.S.
The Norwegians were the first to report on Almond. Funny thing, people in Norway speak Norwegian and they have a different name for the mutation English speakers call ďAlmondĒ. In reporting their findings, the Norwegians used the first letters, St, from that word for the genetic symbol, and St became the symbol used worldwide. Thatís why the mutation to almond isnít referred to as ďAlĒ. (The letters ďalĒ are used as a genetic symbol, but for a totally different mutation, albino. Albino is a rare recessive condition which inhibits the formation of melanin, the birdís coloring material, and the bird is pure white with pink eyes.)
One more rule: When geneticists find mutations which fit into exactly the same spot (locus) on a DNA strand as another mutation (an allele), they give all the alleles the same base letter so that this is instantly obvious to other workers. Thus, Almond is St. Its allele Faded is StF; Qualmond is StQ ; and its wild-type allele (non-Almond) is +St. Brown (b), which is rare but not unknown in racing pigeons, also has a dominant allele, Ash-red BA. Its wild-type allele can be symbolized +b. That's just a fancy way of writing "blue-bar".
Racing homers carry many mutations from wild-type. In color alone, they probably rank among the first in pigeon breeds. Without even trying, I can think of Grizzle (G), Whitetail (wt), Indigo (In), recessive red (e), Ash-red (BA), Modena Bronze (TS1), Checker (C), recessive opal (o), and Spread (S). There are many, many more too. Reduced (r), Almond (St), smokey (sy), pearl eye (tr), etc.
For the past sixty years, most work in pigeon genetics has been concerned with feather color, feather ornaments, voice, etc. Little work has been done on the genetics of homing, flight speed and flight style (except for rolling, as in the Birmingham Roller) because such things are harder to quantify and may well involve multigene complexes. Much still remains to be discovered. For that reason, there's much room for good, hard data to be collected, collated and reported on --even by the backyard fancier. Many panic at such a thought. After all, scientists are "intellectuals", way above ordinary mortals. Nice excuse, but it just ain't so. Despite their image as white-coated types who run around muti-billion dollar laboratories and deal in esoterica, anyone with a brain and a willingess to look at the birds can be one. Science is simply a set of steps taken to look at the world. One of those steps involves gathering hard data and reporting on it. Notice I said hard data -- not supposition, rumor or even stories from some loft's glorious past.
Please also notice: You've gotten this far and haven't melted into a pile of goo even though you've been exposed to those "scary" genetic symbols. Maybe, they're not so scary after all, huh? By the way, those two symbols used in the title? The first stands for male - Mar's spear; the second for female - Venus' mirror.
A good listing of symbols used by pigeon geneticists may be found at Robert Mangile's site at this page
Copyright 1997 by Frank Mosca. This work may be downloaded or copied for non-commercial individual use only. All other rights under copyright are retained by the author.