A Review of The Inheritance of Blue

March 06, 2018


Blue in pigeons is defined as being the Wild-type standard for the Columba livia species normal plumage color in our wild flocks.   Time and time again fanciers have debated the question of a blue gene's existance to produce this blue/black coloration.  There seems to be a common missunderstanding of both the existance of such a blue gene and the correct naming of these genes using the Wild-type clasification system.  This same question came up on a Facebook group that I belong to.  One of the members posed the quetion "How many genes does it take to make a Wild-Type Colored Blue Bar Pigeon?"  He then went on to answer his question by saying"All of them”.   I knew what he ment by saying "All of them"; however by doing so one emplies that every gene in a blue bar's DNA is required to produce that blue color and pattern.  It is too simple of an answer for a complacted question.  It is partly true, but it leaves one with the wrong opinion that all 17,300 some genes, in the birds DNA, are needed to produce that blue pattern.  So is that the correct answer or is there more to it than that?

DR. Willard F. Hollander has addresed this question many times with the fanciers of his day.  Due to the intrest shown he put pin to paper and wrote a short essay titeled  "The Inheritance of Blue" to answer that question.   It was first published in the National Pigeon Assoc. News, December 1965 issue and later as a chapter in his Origins and Excursions in Pigeon Genetics. It is a short story that deals with the inheritance of blue in a question and answer format.   It is somewhat tong in cheek; but, that was one of the ways Doc wrote.   Let me reprint it here for all to read, then we can comment on it afterwards.

by DR. Willard F. Hollander

At least a hundred times I’ve been asked to explain the inheritance of blue. If you don’t know the answer already, I hope you will be shocked. Blue is not inherited. Inheritance implies transmission from parent(s) to offspring by eggs and sperms.  As every school child knows, the parents keep their color, at least until they molt, and even then they don’t transmit it to the squabs. Look in any egg and you’ll never see a bit of blue  - - just white and yellow. 

Now that we are straight on that point, somebody will of course ask,   “Well then where does the squab get the blue?”   Get it??    No, he doesn’t get it; he grows it. And next somebody will ask, “Isn’t there some inheritance at all?”    Sure there is - - chromosomes.   But chromosomes aren’t naturally blue. 

Next question: “But I thought it was genes that are inherited.  Aren’t they?”   Hmmmm.  Well, its theorized by the pundits that chromosomes are long chains of genes.  However, it is so far impossible to see these hypothetical units, whereas chromosomes are visible enough. 

“Then we shouldn’t talk about genes?”   Oh, did I say that?   Sorry, talk all you like about ‘em.

“O.K., I’ll talk about a blue gene.”   “Talk away, but I won’t listen.” 

“You mean you don’t think there is a blue gene?”.    "Blue jeans, yes; blue gene no.   Not any more than a blue chromosome". 

“But there must be one so the pigeon can be blue!” 

“I’m blue too because you are missing my point.   You think that because you use the word gene that you are on the verge of understanding blue pigeons.   Alas, not so."

"O.K., you explain it.   That's what I wanted in the first place." 

"It's too complicated for me to understand."

"You're a big help."   "I hope so.   It was really nothing." 

"Even less.   All I've learned is that you think blue isn't inherited and there isn't even a gene for it." 

"Exactly.   But I didn't say blue has no inherited basis.   The basis is probably so complex that the whole story would take a book to explain."

"I don't see why you make it so difficult. don't you talk about a gene for recessive red or a gene for dilution?"

"Indeed we do.   Those are units identified by being different from blue.   Blue is the wild-type, normal standard reference.   Recessive red or dilution are departures, changes, single and identifiable.   Many other mutants are also known."

"Then blue isn't single and identifiable?" 

"Correct!   If you want a crude analogy, blue is health, while recessive red is a specific disease, so to speak."

"My red birds are just as healthy as my blues."

Well, I tried.

by DR. Willard F. Hollander
Decembet 1965


OK, what can we learn from that series of questions and answers based on the way Doc laid it out??  Judging from his own words, I think Doc felt that we in the pigeon hobby simply would not understand the blue question; even if he had laid it all out there for us in detail. In his opinion, it would take a book to explain. I wish he had written that book to describe exactly what the wild-type naming system is, but sadly he didn’t.

In my opinion, about all, we can learn from his story “The Inheritance of Blue” is that there are a series of genes required to produce a blue pigeon and all of them are identified as being wild type. We can also see that Doc felt it was a complicated subject. One that even he didn't know all the answers to and that it would take a book to explain. I wish he had taken the time to write that book but sadly he didn't. However, had he done so I am sure he would have gone into more detail on exactly what the wild-type naming system is and why it's used.

Wild-type is not limited to the blue color or the bar pattern question. It also addresses things like the number of primary wing feathers; the number of tail feathers; the color of the eyes; the color of the beak; the length and shape of the beak; even the presence or absence of an oil gland. You see each of those things I just listed are things that we can identify as being observable in our pigeons. The overall phenotype for wild-type is defined by each one and when they met the standard they are identified as being wild-type. Anything that deviates from the standard is considered a mutation and given a name. Example being such things as brown pigment, dilute, reduced, recessive red, pearl eye etc etc.. Anything that can be identified and compared to the standard description of the typical species found in the wild is classified as being wild-type. Any deviation from that standard is classified as a mutant and given a name and assigned a symbol.

It doesn't mean that every gene in a blue pigeon must be wild-type; rather it means that every gene required to make a pigeon blue is to be classified as being wild-type for that phenotype standard. There are over 17,300 genes in the birds DNA and only a set number are required to be present for the outcome to result in a blue color. Each of them is to be classified as wild-type for blue. All of the other genes are classified as being wild-type for whatever their function is in meeting the overall wild-type standard so that the bird has the correct eye color, the correct number of tail feathers, the correct beak color, and shape etc. etc..

Think of it this way, all Goldfish are fish but not all fish are Goldfish. In the same way, all genes required for the blue color in pigeons are wild-type but not all of the wild-type genes in pigeons are necessary for the color blue. If they were then there would not be blue fantails with 30 some tail feathers and blue rollers with only 12. There would not be blue pigeons with pearl eyes and blue pigeons with wild-type yellow eyes. However, all of the blue pigeons must have all of the standard genes required for that phenotype color standard to result in the blue color and each of those genes in question will be classified as being wild-type. Any gene that deviates from that standard will be classified as a mutant and given both a name and a symbol.

When Doc wrote that short story we did not have the ability to sequence each and every gene within the bird's DNA. Today we do and there are people busy doing so right now.
Let me copy and past some of what Dr. Richard Cryberg wrote on the blue question back on Feb 14th, 2012.

As we have come to understand the biochemistry involved in heredity and life; it has simply become more obvious that naming or symbolizing a wild-type gene based on phenotype is a fool’s errand. Today’s rule is simple and unambiguous. Wild-type is named for the first discovered mutant at that locus. For example, wild-type at brown is a proper name for a particular wild-type gene in pigeons. Other examples would be wild type at dilute, wild-type at recessive red, etc. The exception is if the exact biochemical function of that wild-type gene becomes known and the gene’s DNA has been sequenced. If both criteria are satisfied it is perfectly acceptable to name it for its biochemical function. For example, the wild-type at the albino gene is also properly named the tyrosinase gene as tyrosinase is the enzyme that wild-type gene produces. It is symbolized Try. Both biochemical function and DNA sequence are absolute requirements for such a name. Absent either no name is permitted.
Dr. Richard Cryberg, The Blue Question, Feb 14, 2012

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So now we come full circle to the original question of “How many genes does it take to make a Wild-Type Colored, Blue Bar Pigeon?"  The correct answer is not “All of them” as claimed by some but rather only the actual number needed to produce the blue color in a bar pattern. To date, the exact number is not known but it certainly is not all 17,300 genes in the birds total DNA.    If it takes all 17,300 then there are no true blue bar fantails or rollers or homers. They would be nothing more than some form of a blue bar mimics and not a real blue bar.  

I simply do not buy into that thought process. You might but I won’t.

All Goldfish are fish but not all fish are Goldfish.   All blue bars are wild-type genes for the blue bar standard but not all wild-type genes for the overall standard are for the blue bar.

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