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ALBINO

by Frank Mosca
I've been asked to discuss albinism in pigeons. Thankfully, this request is one of the easier ones to answer that I've received over the past few years.

Albino, symbolized al, is a simple recessive mutation. That means any albino must have gotten a copy of the mutation from both its sire and dam. Having an albino appear in your stud can mean only one thing, your birds carry albino as part of their gene pool.

Albino can appear in any breed and, naturally, any feather ornaments or unusual body features common to that breed will still be there. For example, an albino Old Dutch Tumbler will have muffs; an albino Bokhara Trumpeter will have its shell, beak rose and muffs; an albino Carrier will still have its walnut-shaped wattle, etc.

Albino mutations are found in practically every animal species on the planet. I've either seen or seen pictures of albino rabbits, albino humans, albino frogs, albino squirrels, albino deer, albino alligators, and what may be an albino penguin-- to name just a few. But exactly what is albino and what does it do?

The albino mutation interferes with the production of melanin, none is produced anywhere in the body. (If you want to be a bit more technical, the mutation interferes with production of the enzyme tyrosinase, a melanin precursor.) That's why an albino rabbit or human has pink eyes. Normally, when you look at a human eye, for example, you see the colored iris. The color you see is caused by melanin and how it reflects and absorbs light. More melanin absorbs more light and the eye appears darker -- brown, black. Less absorbs less light and we see a lighter eye -- gray or blue.

The albino mutation in pigeons does exactly the same thing as other albino mutations do in other animal species. No melanin is produced. Since melanin is the coloring material for the feathers and since there is no melanin produced to put into those feathers, they are always white - unless they are colored by a pigment other than melanin. Our pigeons don't have those pigements in their feathers, however some fruit pigeons and parrots do. That's why you may sometimes see a picture of an albino bird and yet it has areas of yellow or red in its feathering.

Because no melanin at all produced, albino is epistatic to all other color mutations in the pigeon. An albino bird may be spread dominant opal. It may be a Deroy or a brown bar or a heterozygous ash-red indigo, or anything else. We simply can't tell just by looking at the bird. Even on an albino pigeon, however, you may still see faint irridescent purple and green color on the neck. This is because those colors are produced by light refracting from bubble-like structures inside the feather itself. No pigment is involved. But how can we tell the difference between a true albino and a recessive white?

The easiest way is to look at the eyes. Since albino produces a bird which has no pigment in the body, its eye is pink -- the pink being caused by light striking the blood vessel and reflecting back to us. Without pigment in the eye, albino birds often have trouble seeing in bright sunlight. Because of this great sensitivity to bright sunlight, the vision of albinos tends to suffer compared to their pigmented kin. Recessive white birds have bull (dark colored) eyes.

Many albino animals, including humans, are at great risk from sun damage to their skin since there's no melanin present to act as sunscreen. However, pigeons have one advantage that albino humans don't -- feathers to help protect them. Though even here, they have less protection than do their pigmented relatives.

Having said all this, let me tell you albino is a relatively rare mutation in pigeons. In addition, those which are born seldom make it to breeding age, not because they can't but because they are often quickly culled as useless by the breeder or taken as a meal by local predators. After all, a pure white bird which stands out against its background, especially at night, and which also has trouble seeing during daylight hours is definitely not long for this world if an owl, cat, hawk, or other predator is close.

The reason breeders cull albinos are valid ones. Any breed dependant on a pattern for its show points, e.g., swallow, or baldhead roller, will obviously not be showable if albino is present. If albinos aren't culled, and if carriers aren't detected and eliminated, soon the whole stud will likely be albinos.

If the breed you keep is one which is permanently caged and is found in white and also allows pink eyes, then you could easily form a homozygous albino stud to make your breeding simple. However, I've never heard of such a breed. Still, with protection from predators and with lowered light levels, albinos seem to live normal life spans. They could easily make great pets. However, if your breed is a working one: roller, homer, tippler, diver, etc., your chances of doing good with an albino are practically nil.

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