How to explain it: Combinatorial and epistatic effects in color genetics of the domestic pigeon

The rich palette of pigeon coloring is the result of combinations of color factors. If these are known for the parents, one can predict the probability of certain colors appearing in the offspring. The methodical principle can be learned from every color group. Shown here as an example in our own breeding.

Currently in the nest are a black and a platinum youngster. In the previous clutch a solid platinum colored cock was bred. The father is genetically of black color base and is also phenotypical a solid black. His parentage is heterozygous for the recessive factor platinum. Genetically, in addition to the genetic code for the black base color, it has the dominant color spread factor (S), at least heterozygous. Only Spread turns blue and blue checkered pigeons, which also have a black base color, into black ones. Since the cock has a barred (non-spread) youngster, he is heterozygous for S. S covers (epistatic) the pattern. In the family, only bars and the dominant check are present as pattern. From the appearance of the parents, the cock is probably at least heterogeneous for the check pattern. Both parents cannot be homozygous, since otherwise no barred youngster could have been raised. The solid platinum female has genetically, like the cock, a black basic color. Recognizable by the barred young, also only heterozygous for Spread. In the pattern for the same reasons as in the cock, probably check/bar.

Fig. 1: Pomeranian Eye-Crested Highflyer black cock and Spread Platinum hen

Fig. 2: From the pair in Fig. 1 young platinum with bars and black (left) and young platinum cock with color spread in the moult (right). Spread Platinum cocks are lighter colored than the females.

For many breeders it is a single mating, a black with a platinum. From a genetic point of view, there are several pairings at the level of the gene pairs involved, which are initially examined separately (Fig. 3). Both parents are homozygous for the black basic coloring (code for black pigment). Thus, only individuals with the black basic color are to be expected among the young. This does not have to be shown in Punnett's square. Different with the color spread factor Spread. Both parents are heterozygous. According to Mendel, half of the young, like the parents, are homozygous for S (S//+) and show the dominant factor S, a quarter is homozygous (S//S) and a quarter does not have it. This quarter has bars or checks. At the platinum factor level, the female is homozygous for platinum, the cock heterozygous. According to Mendel, in such a constellation, half of the young will be homozygous platinum (pl//pl) and will also show this in the phenotype. The others will have platinum heterozygous. Since platinum is recessive, they will not show platinum. Finally, in this example, the pattern is relevant. According to the preliminary information, both parents seem to be heterozygous for the check and the bar pattern. Again, according to Mendel, from this you will get half homozygous check young, one quarter homozygous checkered and one quarter barred.

Fig. 3: Punnett’s squares for the color spread factor, for the platinum factor and for the pattern covered in pigeons with the spread factor.

If we combine the information from the Punnett squares, we can see, among other things, in the square of the color spread factor that only ¼ of the young do not have the factor. By squaring the platinum factor, you can see that half will be homozygous for platinum. The pattern square shows that ¼ of the hatchlings will genetically have the code for bars (non-checks). However, in most of them covered by Spread (Fig. 4).

The barred platinum young therefore is a rare occurrence. The probability is about ¼ x ½ x ¼ = 1/32. In the case of numerous offspring, there will still be blue-bar, blue-checkered and platinum-checkered colorings.

Fig. 4: Exemplary combinatorial effects of color genes taking into account the epistatic effect of spread

Inheritance is conveyed here as a logically structured puzzle. Other colors can also be viewed using the same didactic principle. An accompanying booklet with tasks and solutions was designed for the new edited English, Dutch and French-language 'Introduction to pigeon genetics', with which you can playfully familiarize yourself with the essential mechanisms of pigeon genetics. The basic didactic principle for a different color constellation is already prefixed on the cover, as it was on the German-language brochure a few decades ago. As those in the know can immediately see from the symbols on the cover, the mating presented there with dominant red also involves a sex-linked inheritance (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Combinatorial and epistatic effects as the guiding motif on the cover, Introduction to Heredity in Pigeons (English, Dutch, French) 2022, and Inheritance in Pigeons 1980


Hollander, W.F., Origin and Excursion in Pigeon Genetics, Kansas 1983

Levi, W. M., The Pigeon, Sumter 1941, reprinted 1969

Sell, Axel, Introduction to Heredity in Pigeons with a supplement Comprehensive Questions, Achim 2022 (also in Dutch and French language)

Sell, Axel, Pigeon Genetics. Applied Genetics in the Domestic Pigeon, Achim 2012

Sell, Axel, Vererbung bei Tauben, Traventhal 1980