lpearce's picture

Brown Feral Pigeon

Observed: 3rd April 2010 By: lpearcelpearce’s reputation in Birdslpearce’s reputation in Birdslpearce’s reputation in Birdslpearce’s reputation in Birds

At home we normally see pure Rock Dove, see http://www.ispot.org.uk/node/2641, so interested to see these red-brown coloured ferals while visiting Yorkshire. There were seven feeding in the garden this morning all much like the red-brown one in the photographs. Does anybody known how they come to be brown - what bird have they inter-bredded with?

Species interactions

No interactions present.


Norwichnaturalist's picture

Racing Pigeon

More like an escaped Racing Pigeon. Feral birds are very varied too

Colin Jacobs.
Wild Flower Society member

RoyW's picture

Columba livia

Birds like these are often found in Feral Pigeon flocks, and are the result of humans meddling with the Rock Doves gene pool to produce colours and other varations that they like.
Breeders have produced crosses with other species (eg. Streptopelia dove species), but there is no real evidence that the colour forms we see in Feral Pigeons result from anything other than selective breeding of Rock Doves (Columba livia).

Kluut's picture

Coloured pigeons

Human meddling did nothing to produce the change in colour - man merely selected mutations that he liked and bred from them. The mutation that produced the abnormal colour was entirely natural, unaided by man.

Apart from dietary or stress-related oddities, odd colours in all birds occur due to partial or total absence of either the melanin and/or carotenoid pigments in the feathers, or modification of the same. These are all results of entirely natural genetic mutations.

RoyW's picture


I guess that I didn't really make it clear what I meant.
Different breeds and colour varieties in domestic birds and animals do originate from the selection of natural mutations (although there is now the potential for that to change as there are advances in genetic modification).
Selective breeding, using only individuals that show certin features, has allowed colours and forms that have not become dominant in naturally occuring populations of many species to be seen frequently.

In the example posted here, 'brown' Rock Doves are exceptionally rare (perhaps unheard of). The original mutation from which the brown pigeons were bred may have been only a slight change from the natural colours, with the colour 'improved' on over many generations of selective breeding. It is extremely rare for a domestic breed, or colour form, to have originated naturally (from a mutation) without further developement, and enhancement, by selective breeding.
Yes, it is correct that mutations that may lead to this sort of colour do occur naturally - but in my opinion there is absolutely no doubt that the fact that these forms are so frequently found in feral populations (and not in wild populations) is a result of humans 'adapting' wildlife t suit our whims.

Kluut's picture


The reason that odd colours and other physical traits are rare in nature is that the huge majority are (genetically) recessive. That means that an individual must inherit the responsible gene from both parents. As the mutation will be rare, it will be even rarer for two wild birds that carry it, to mate and produce mutant off-spring. This generally only happens in very small populations, where matings are restricted, so that any chance mutation can become widely distributed within the population.

Unfortunately, a great deal of what you suggest, particularly in your last two paragraphs, is actually not possible, as any change at all in colour (short of adding colourants to the feed), must be genetic, and man has absolutely no control over that, outside of a laboratory. Man can only work with what nature (chance, luck, fluke, God), provides him with. Man cannot selectively breed anything for modified appearance unless the genetics are already there. With colour and patterning, the genetics are actually very simple and very well understood in the main.

Visual mutants are far more common in captive populations due to two reasons - firstly, the gene-pool is restricted, so that even large populations will be related to some degree, so that mating together two related individuals that carry single copies of the same recessive gene (from a common ancestor), becomes far more likely than in a wild population. (Any particular, singular genetic mutation is so very rare that the same mutation arising in different individuals that then mate, is vanishingly unlikely).
Secondly, man, as a generalisation, is fascinated by mutants, and goes out of his way to perpetuate very many of them by selective breeding.

The mutations that we are talking about here, in the main, are either present or not - brown (red to pigeon breeders) pigeons were not bred from slightly reddish normal (blue to pigeon breeders) birds. The very first red was bred from 2 related blue birds in all probability (that assumes that red was the first mutant colour to occur, if not, we get even more complicated).
By way of illustration - budgies have a far shorter domestic history (first kept in Europe in the 1840's), so the record of their mutation colours is mostly very well documented. All budgies were green until the 1870's, when two normal, green, wild-type budgies produced a yellow - the same yellow colour that we see today in budgies.
The change from blue to red in pigeons is the result of one altered gene, changes in patterning will be the responsibility of one or more other genes, depth of the red colour (to produce "yellows" for instance), will be the responsibility of one or more modifier genes.

RoyW's picture

You obviously know what you are talking about

A very well written response which 'corrects' some very poorly worded examples of mine, which do imply that I am suggesting something that does not happen. I also agree with almost everything that you have said above, but selective breeding (even when the genetics are understood) is always a simply case of a single mutation produces a colour form.

I do understand that genetics are behind selective breeding, and that only naturally occuring genes have been selected for in the past (who knows what man will create if genetic modification advances though!). There is, however, no doubt at all that it is selective breeding by man that has allowed many different colour forms to become frequent in populations of many domesticated species (by selectively breeding individuals with the mutated genes, whether these are recessive or not).

As for developing colours gradually, it was never my intention to suggest that, for example, 'red' pigeons could be gradually bred from pigeons that started off with a 'reddish tinge', I am fully aware that many colour mutations are due to a single genetic mutation that prevents the proper production (or deposition) of one (or more) pigment. However, many of the domestic colour forms that we see today have been developed by selective breeding of individuals that show two very different genetic mutations (typically with the breeder having no real idea what the outcome would be). Careful selection of the resulting offspring can often, but not always, produce individuals that (eventually) breed true to the colour form, which may be something between the colours of the original mutations - or something completely different.
Your own bugerigar example is a actually a good illustration of how man has developed a variety of different colours by selective breeding. Breeders DO have to work with the mutations that nature provides, but they can then develop further colours (admittedly with a large element of chance) by selectively combining these mutations.

The rarity of these mutations in nature - and the recessive nature of many of them, means that many combinations which have effectively been 'made' by man are extremely unlikely to occur naturally. I therefore stand by my statement that these forms have been produced by man (at least some of them do not occur naturally), and that man can 'develop' colour forms (although limited by naturally occuring genetic mutations).

Kluut's picture

True in part

All mutation colour forms are the result of one or more than one genetic "fault" being exhibited by the one animal. In almost all cases with domestic stock, these are extremely well understood. It is only the case with novices and the disinterested, and with stock of unknown genetic make-up, that young are produced of unpredicted/unpredictable colour and/or pattern. The one exception being in genes that produce pied patterning, which is random.

I am far from expert on avian colour genetics, but pigment-derived colours are almost exclusively of two types - melanin and related compounds, and carotenoids. So, to get a white bird, there are 2 possibilities - the bird can carry two genetic mistakes, one to stop melanin being deposited, one to stop carotenoids being deposited, or it can carry one genetic mistake that stops all colouration. A particularly odd example of the two mistake case is the animal carrying a pied gene and a gene to stop melanin deposition - the animal appears white but is actually pied (if you did but know, although this can usually easily be proven by looking at its offspring).
In other words, "new" colours/patterns are merely the combination of multiple mutations in one individual, which individually are generally very well understood.

If you want some mind-numbing examples, take a look at a comprehensive examination of budgie colour genetics. The captive population has numerous mutant modifier genes and genes that affect the colour and pattern only of certain areas of the body with the result that a complicated example may need 4-5-6 or more words to fully describe it's colour and pattern, but in very many cases, an expert can tell you what any bird is genetically, from sight alone.

We must surely have bored the pants off everyone by now? LOL

RoyW's picture

"We must surely have bored the pants off everyone by now?"

I would hope that anyone who wasn't interested wouldn't bother reading such long posts!!

I think that it's interesting anyway - and I've already tried looking up budgie genetics! I'll dig up more detail and have a good read around that subject in the near future.

Kluut's picture

Avian genetics

Partly because birds in general attract an awful lot of attention and research, and partly because they are popular pets, a very great deal is known about colour in birds in general. About 2-3 years ago, what amounts to an encyclopedia on the subject was published - very expensive although a friend has it. From that I learnt that the pigment in the iris of penguin eyes is unique to penguins, amongst other snippets.
As I mentioned, pigments are almost entirely carotenoids and melanin derivatives, but touracos have unique green and red pigments, and any metallic colour is essentially always achieved by refraction - easily seen by viewing a feather by transmitted light, when they look brown.
Melanin derivatives are based on tyrosine - an amino-acid, carotenoids are absorbed from foods (such as carrot, berries, maize, shrimps, algae etc.), either in the form as required by the bird, or to be modified by the bird for use.
Melanin derivatives are mostly browns, greys and black, but the red of a robin's breast is actually a melanin derivative. Carotenoids are red, orange, yellows, in the main. Most greens are a combination of carotenoid and melanin, for instance - loose the melanin and the bird is yellow, loose the carotenoid and the bird is blue or grey.
As mentioned before, a single visual effect can theoretically be achieved in a multitude of ways - not least by interrupting or modifying the path of the pigment or the raw material for it, at any point from absorption through to deposition. Each hiccup would represent a different mutation.
In white canaries, for instance, the genetic fault greatly diminishes the ability to absorb carotenoids from the gut. This means that white canaries have a minimum requirement for vitamin A and/or precursors, in the diet,of something like ten-fold the requirement of a yellow canary. It also means that white canaries tend to have poor or very poor eye-sight.

Beware when reading accounts of colour mutation in birds in captivity. Yellow and buff are feather types, NOT colours (visual yellow is usually called lutino). Yellow feathers are hard and sleak, buff feathers are more fluffy.

tootsietim's picture

Charles Darwin kept and bred

Charles Darwin kept and bred pigeons for some years to investigate the breeders methods of producing different colour breaks and indeed body shapes and size etc. This, I think, he equated to a speeded up form of evolution where the selection factor was the breeder, rather than an ability to pass on genes in a natural environment.