The term red as applied to pigeon color is a can of worms. It's used for colors which, while somewhat similar in appearance, are very different genetically. There's no blame attached to anyone for this. After all, breeders described the birds long before genetics was even thought of. However, because fancier names can be somewhat confusing when we talk about reds, I'm going to use the genetic terminology and explain as I go.
First off, we know that the reds we're discussing include shades like brick-red, copper, chestnut, and bronze. Domestic pigeons don't produce scarlet, crimson or carmine. That's not to say all pigeons can't. Many wild fruit doves are colored as flamboyantly as any parrot. Other wild pigeons such as the Bleeding Heart Dove show splotches of brilliant red color. Unfortunately, the pigeons which produce these flaming red colors are only distantly related to our birds, and cannot be crossed to form fertile hybrids with them. So, until we either find an analagous mutation in our own birds, or some gene splicing scientist is able to snip out the infomation we need from a wild species and bring it across into ours, we're going to have to be satisfied with the reds we do have. Of course, some of those are quite attractive, especially when combined with other modifiers, for example, gimpel bronze, pale. and maybe the whitewing mutation Paul Gibson has found in ash-red gimpels. To see what I mean, take a look at the Arad Pigeon photo that I got from a penpal in Norway.
So, what is red in our pigeons? Let's start with the red of the racing homer, the ordinary red of most pigeons. The red you can find in almost any city park. Let's look at it in a barred bird. What do we see? First: the pattern is similar to that of the wild-type blue bar pigeon. The wing bars show on a clear silvery-ashy shield, the tail bar is visible. However, neither wing bars nor tail bar is the same color as it is on a wild blue bar. The wing bar is not black, but rather a brick-red color. The tail bar is also not black, but neither is it brick red. Instead, we find that it has been washed out to an ashy-gray color. We also find the same ashy-gray color on the edges of the wing's flight feathers. Note the flights and tails on the photos above.
It was this duality of action, the reddening of the bars and feather color and the ashy-lightening of the tail bar and flights that led W.F. Hollander to choose the name Ash-red for the mutation which produces this condition. Ash-red is extremely common and found in many breeds, either alone or in combination with other mutations. Its genetic shorthand symbol is BA but I won't go into the reasons for that designation in this article.
But what is Ash-red? In a wild-type blue bar pigeon, the material that colors the feathers is called melanin. To be more specific, it's actually called eumelanin. This material is laid down in the feathers and is shaped like a rod. The mutation for Ash-red goofs up the instructions in the bird's genetic structure which causes the body to lay down those rod-shaped eumelanin granules. Instead, the body lays down irregularly ball-shaped piles of pigment. You can imagine it as if thin, metal rods were suddenly trampled by a hippopotamus. The long, thin rods are now irregular globs of metal.
While there's actually a chemical change from one melanin type to the other, for our purposes we can just figure the basic coloring material is about the same. In its ball-shaped arrangement, we call the coloring material phaeomelanin. Depending on how phaeomelanin is arranged in the bird's feathers and on its concentration in those feathers, it appears to us either brownish or reddish.
As breeders, we happen to find the color effects pleasing so we keep the mutation around and try to raise more birds carrying it. Since this particular mutation is a sex-linked dominant, that's very easy to do. All we need do to get more Ash-red birds is to pair an Ash-red with any blue/black or brown bird. If one pairs an Ash-red hen with such a cock, all Ash-red youngsters in the nest will be cocks and all non-Ash-red birds will be hens. If one pairs an Ash-red cock with a blue/black or brown hen, one gets Ash-red youngsters of both sexes, as well as other colored young of both sexes if the Ash-red cock happens to be carrying any other color factor (i.e., if it's heterozygous, rather than homozygous, for Ash-red.)
Please note, and this is important, with Ash-red, the bird's pattern is still visible. We can look at an Ash-red bird and see if it's a barless, bar or checker. Unfortunately, we again meet one of those worms caused by the difference between genetic jargon and fancier jargon. What many racing homer breeders call "barless mealy" is almost certainly not a barless pigeon. Rather, it's usually an Ash-red bird, barred or checkered, which happens to also carry a second mutation called Spread.
Spread is a mutation which can basically be considered to take the tail bar color and "spread" it over the entire bird, like an overcoat. Thus, a spread blue pigeon is a black, and a spread brown is self-brown. Because the Ash-red bird has an ashy-tail bar, the Spread mutation reproduces this color over the entire bird. Voila, a "barless" mealy. I say "barless" because the Spread factor usually prevents you from seeing the bars, though they are there, just as you normally don't see the bars in a black, though they, too, are genetically there. True barless birds do exist, by the way, some are even racing pigeons. I have friends who've flown them to all distances.
Other reds known in domestic pigeons are recessive red and the various bronzes. Those, however, are the subject of another article.
ADDENDUM: 10/2006 There is some evidence now available: "Biosynthesis of Eumelanin and Phaeomelanin" by Richard Cryberg, that Ash-red and Brown may not be alleles, but just closely linked. This is still being worked on now and would be an exciting finding if true. The link is to the article at Robert Mangile's site - another excellent place to check out.
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. (Revised 01/26/00)