While most of us are interested in "pretty" birds, color alone does not and can not define a pigeon. (Place your cursor on the bird pictured above to see just some of what goes into creating even something as "simple" as the color of a particular pigeon.) Even feral pigeons are more than just pigment. Behavior, ornaments, disease resistance, feeding ability, body size, feather length, flying style, cere size, and homing ability are all grist for the fancier's breeding plan and the geneticist's wonder. Many things seldom considered by everyday breeders still fall to scientific review: blood type, immune system response, viability of sperm, etc. Brown & Sharp (Pigeon Genetics Newsletter [PGNL] #57:17-18) reported on "The Association of Transferrin and Glutathione in Pigeons."
"Wow!" you say. "That's so esoteric as to be useless to the common breeder." Perhaps, but their conclusion that high glutathione levels in pigeon blood may be related to a pigeon's mechanism for handling metabolic waste suggests interesting possibilities for racing breeders. What if higher glutathione levels indicate ability to perform longer and harder on the road? Blood tests might indicate which birds may be breeders of winners and take the sport a step forward toward a scientific understanding on what goes into making a better sire or dam.
Many more features of our birds have been discussed in genetic terms, yet much of this stuff is seldom spoken of outside the pages of Pigeon Genetics, News Views and Comments or the lofts of those who concern themselves with such information. There's no conspiracy of silence. Quite the opposite, in fact. Dozens of writers, myself included, have shared much of this information over the past fifty years, but there's such a vast wealth collected now, that much simply hasn't made it to most fanciers. Even those of us who enjoy the genetic side of the hobby as much as its traditional show and racing sides have trouble keeping up with it all. Occasionally, important information is written up, then forgotten or buried in the mass of new work.
In 1971, R. Entrikin (PGNL #59:4-32) published a study of rolling in pigeons. More than twenty years later, many still don't know that his experiments allowed nineteen conclusions. Among them: rolling is controlled by allelic genes and that the neck muscle fibers of rollers have a "higher resting potential, critical firing level, and lower membrane resistance than muscle fibers of normal pigeon neck muscles."
J.S. Moran, a high school student at the time, had his experiment on color vision of pigeons reported in Scientific American October 1970. How many have seen it? One article printed some years back in both the now no longer published, American Pigeon Journal and PGNL showed that "docile" nest behavior is a simple recessive condition. Don't like slap happy birds that belt you with their wing when you reach in to check on a youngster? Breed for the docile stuff. Don't have any? Cross it in.
Sometimes, we find that "common sense" isn't all that accurate either. Everybody knows that white reflects heats while black absorbs it, right? People have even said it might be better to fly lighter colored birds in desert areas. Turns out, though, it may not be so. In Sonoran Desert Summer by J. Alcock, I found data which may explain why white racers are said (accurately or not) to be lost on the road more often than colored ones, and it has nothing to do with their supposed vulnerability to hawks.
Alcock mentions G.E. Walsberg's experiment with phainopeplas, a native U.S. desert bird. Males are black and females gray. Tests showed that despite "common sense", the black males were actually about the same temperature at the skin surface as were the gray females. Why became the question. Walsberg tested pigeons because of their many colors.
His final results showed that the shortwave component of solar radiation easily penetrates through white plumage to the skin surface. Darker plumage doesn't allow that component of the sun's radiation to get through and it keeps the heat load at the feather surface where it's removed by passing air currents. Whites, on the other hand, heat up faster at the skin's surface and this heat is not readily lost since the feathers now prevent that -- just as greenhouse glass allows the sun rays in but not the heat back out. Perhaps, many white racers drop faster for water than their colored relatives do. Perhaps, they stop racing due to heat exhaustion. Perhaps, they're culled from the loft by the breeder as "slower". Perhaps, that "slowness" and their visibility contribute to their "hawk-bait" reputation. Or, perhaps, there's a totally different explanation.
What about the "practical" stuff? L. Petrus of the Netherlands has noticed that dark, egg-yolked colored down of squeakers is indicative of birds carrying heavy iridescence. W. F. Hollander and G. Dooley have accumulated much data on the web-foot condition. Some brief work of my own indicates that Baldhead and swallow marking may be alleles. Interested in following a recessive red cross? As far back as the 1950's, Dr. Counsilman of Carrier fame noted that many smokey birds heterozygous for recessive red have a reddish, rather than dark, beak ring at hatching. L.P. Gibson has shown that moving brander bronze from one breed to another is fairly simple, so long as you use the correct mating. You need to use a recessive red which is not also carrying Spread. Gibson and Potter have worked out the inheritance of the color of Oriental Frills. It's a combination of frill stencil and Toy Stencil. Gibson, and others, have also reported on the discovery of new mutants for color as well as for physical features. Have you heard about the mutation which produces near perfect mirror images of the wing flights so that a pigeon may have twenty flights back to back?
While much of pigeon genetics is readily practical, easy to understand and immediately useful, no all of it is. After all, people have been raising pigeons for more than 4000 years. That allows more than enough opportunity to put together some complex combinations of mutations. It's going to take some time to unravel them all. In fact, it's going to take some time to even find all of them. Right now, there is literally so much known that it would take a book the size of Levi's, The Pigeon, or a good standard encyclopedia volume, to begin to deal with it all. That's not to say the subject's so large and daunting that no one can learn it. It CAN be learned one step at a time, just as breeding to a standard is learned. Beside, much of the still puzzling stuff will undoubtedly be found to be different expressions of the same mutation under varying conditions. I'm just trying to show you that no matter what your interest in pigeons is, there's likely an aspect of pigeon genetics that could help, or, at least, interest you. You can also take pride in the fact that you're living in the first century of breeders who have ever systematically tried to find out what goes into "making up" a pigeon. You might even take more pride in doing it yourself? Why not try?
Text 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.