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Red lovebirds, a mutation?

Red lovebirds, a mutation?
[Genus Agapornis]

By Dirk Van den Abeele
(16-02-2005)
(updated 13/12/2007)

It was around 1980 when I first came across a ‘red’ love bird in a shop. It was a lutino A. roseicollis hen which for some reason was coloured almost completely red. The result was an almost completely red bird, with red eyes, white primaries and an occasional yellow feather. At that point I did not know whether this was a mutation or not. I thought it was a normal mutation and bought the bird. I was convinced that this would enable me to start breeding red birds but that was not the case. After about 6 months the bird died without having produced offspring. I vowed that if I ever got the chance I would buy another specimen and to start a blood line.

Over the years I have bought several ‘red’ birds, A. personatus, A. fischeri or A. roseicollis, but I have never managed to breed a single red bird. All of them died after a while without producing offspring. Still there are people who claim that these red birds are mutations and there are several internet sites where you can buy them. They are sometimes even mentioned in the literature. At least two specimens of A. roseicollis have already been recorded bij Seth-Smith in 1921 and by Boettincher in 1926. This constitutes enough reason to take a closer look.

Red?
The first question we need to have answered is what causes this red colour? The answer is simple: psittacine. With these red birds we notice that the psittacine which is normally yellow, turns red in certain areas or even all over the body. A straightforward reason cannot be given for this phenomenon. Is it a mutation? Is it a disease? Is it a normal change? Does it have to do with nutrition? …

There is red and there is red…
For almost 25 years I have gathered information about these red birds and two distinct groups of ‘red’ love birds can be found.

The first group are the birds which are born ‘red’. I have once seen an A. personatus where the yellow feather areas (chest and neck) were completely red. I also once had a young A. fischeri in a nest which was predominantly red. The green feather areas were also infected and the normal yellow psittacine in the feather’s cortex was also red with these birds, as a result they had a brownish colour. There have also been sightings of young A. roseicollis which had ‘red scales’ on their body, etc. as far as I have managed to ascertain the result is predictable: either the birds will get their normal colouring back or they will die before their first moult. No exceptions to this rule have come to my attention.

A second group are the birds which start to get a red deposit later on. They will usually retain this red deposit which over time will expand. As the red gets more pronounced the risks will increase. Most of them will die a few months after the first red deposit appears. Yet on occasion birds are found with an extreme red deposit which do produce offspring. At present I even have one reliable (and verifiable) mentioning of a A. roseicollis (cinnamon green hen) which turned red and survived. A few of her young have also started to develop a red pattern after some time. This is (still) not a definite sign that this is a chromosomal mutation and since this concerns very young birds we do not know whether the young will in turn inherit these characteristics. A logical answer would be that we are dealing with a mutation. There are a number of mutations which affect the colour of the psittacine, for instance the orange mask. This entails a change in the colour of the psittacine, but that cannot be compared. Among the parakeets there is even one mutation which for some reason manages to colour the yellow psittacine red in certain feather areas and to place psittacine in feather areas where it is normally not found: the opaline (keep in mind that this mutation will not place psittacine in a species which normally does not have psittacine, but only for species which already have psittacine in the feathers will the opalinee mutation rearrange the positions) This opaline mutation inherits SL (sex linked) and in the case among love birds they can be found among A. roseicollis. Yet we can state with certainty that these have nothing to do with the ‘red’ birds. With opaline the birds already have the recognizable opaline pattern in the nest.

Colours and feathers
To get a clearer picture of this matter it is good to explore the feather structure and to research how the different colours come about and which elements contribute.
The colour of the feathers is determined by the pigments present and the micro structural composition of the feather. Most bird species will have melanin and carotenoids. The melanin (eumelanin and phaeomelanin) range from red brown to black. These melanins have nothing to do with the red colour, the carotenoids however do. The structure and development of the melanins and the carotenoids have been intensely studied. Fortunately this gives us the opportunity to get a clear overview of the origin and development of these pigments.
Carotenoids are a group of natural pigments which can be found in plants, fruits and vegetables. These carotenoids are usually red, orange or yellow in colour. A few of the most common carotenoids are: cantaxanthine, lutein, a-carotene, astaxanthine, zeaxanthine, etc. It is known that certain nutrients affect the colour of the carotenoid in the feathering if these birds have carotenoid in their feathers (e.g. canaries)
The reason is simple: carotenoid pigments are ingested by the birds via the nutrition. Through the digestive system (a vital link in the process is for instance the liver) they make their way into the bloodstream from where the dye is directly or indirectly deposited in the growing feather. The intensity of the colour is determined by the type of carotenoid and the quantity deposited in the feather.

Thanks to HPLC or the High Performance Liquid Chromatography (one of the new research methods) it has become a lot easier for scientist to determine the chemical composition of carotenoid. Thanks to this method they were able to establish that the chemical composition of red carotenoid is completely different from the yellow carotenoid for the same bird species (Stradi 1998; Massa and Stradi 1999; McGraw K.J. 2003) In 1999 Massa and Stradi examined the feathers of a yellow head Gouldamadine (Chloebia gouldiae) These yellow feathers contain lutein and 3-dehydrolutein, whereas the normal red feathers among the wild form contain 4-ketacarotenoids.
Kevin J. McGraw studied the feathers of a wild form ‘red cardinal’ (Cardinalis cardinalis) and compared them to a yellow mutation. He reached the same conclusion. Both the red and the yellow carotenoid in these feathers have a different chemical composition. In both cases the mutation has ensured that the metabolism of the bird does not deposit the normal red carotenoids in the feathers, but a modified composition. The transformation in the bird’s body of the carotenoid ingested via the nutrition occurs through enzymes which can therefore be influenced by hereditary factors. The logical conclusion would thus be that this is also the case for love birds, but is this true?

And for our love birds?
It was stated before that most birds have carotenoids in their feathers, but the parakeets (psittaciformes) and therefore also the love birds are an exception to this rule. Instead of carotenoids we find an unusually clear colour pigment in the feathers of parakeets. This was determined scientifically for the first time in 1883 by Krukenberg. He named the pigment psittacofulvins. This was researched and confirmed several times by Völker in 1936, 1937 and 1942.

The feathers of love birds contain eumelanin and psittacofulvins (or psittacine as we define these pigments) This psittacine is responsible for the red and yellow colours in the love birds’ feathers. Thus we have to look for the cause of the red birds in that area.

Psittacine (psittacofulvins)
If we compare psittacine with carotenoids we discover a few similarities. Like carotenoids psittacofulvins or psittacine are was we call lipid soluble (lubricant or grease soluble) or are in other words soluble in apolar solvents such as benzene or chloroform. They are also responsible for the red, orange and yellow colour among love birds, the same way the carotenoids form these colours among for instance finches.

We could therefore assume that these psittacofulvins like the carotenoids can be found in the blood stream  from where they are deposited in the feather but recent research has shown that this is not the case. Research was performed into the composition of the red feathers among 44 types of parakeets (McGraw & Mary C. Nogare 2005) This research showed that among all 44 types:

  • None of them had carotenoids in their feathers but psittacofulvins (psittacine)
  • Some carotenoids were found in the blood stream but absolutely no psittacofulvins

In other words, parakeets have the possibility to absorb carotenoids in the metabolism but they do not use the absorbed dyes to deposit them in their feathers. Instead psittacofulvins are deposited in the feathers. This proves what we already knew by experience: this pigment is not dependent on or influenced by the ingested dyes. In other words, contrary to canaries, the red, yellow or orange colour in the love birds’ feathers cannot be influenced by administering certain nutrients or dyes.

An interesting fact is that the HPLC method showed that the red psittacofulvins in the parakeets’ feathers consist of tetradecahexenal, hexadecaheptenal, octadecaoctenal, eicosanonenal and a fifth unknown component. (Stradi & al 2001; McGraw & Mary C. Nogare 2005) Research of the yellow feathers did not prove to be as easy and as a result the correct composition of the yellow psittacine is not known. However, this does prove that, just as with carotenoids, the chemical composition of the red and yellow dye are different.

If we were to project this onto the phenomenon of the red love birds, we can already exclude that this is cause by a surplus of a certain nutrient. It is not the body’s metabolism which causes the colour in the feather since the dyes in the blood are not deposited there. It is often proposed that a liver disease could be the cause of this extreme red colour but we can exclude this for the same reasons.

Since no psittacofulvins were found in the blood stream the cause and origin of the psittacine will lie in the feather follicle. A possible cause could be: either a mutation or a defect in the heather follicle in the skin.

If we are dealing with a chromosomal mutation we should be able to determine a fixed inheritance pattern, especially with the different sightings, but this is not (yet) the case. What could be is that this phenotype is caused by the changing genes or that it inherits multi-factored. This would entails that in order to get this red colour several genes would have to have mutated. This could then be an explanation of the example of the ‘red’ cinnamon A. roseicollis which had ‘red’ offspring.

Another possibility is that there might be a defect in the feather follicle. We notice that among the eumelanin mutation there are forms of leucism. For this mutants the cause can also be found in the melanocytes (skin pigments) which are responsible for the production of eumelanin. It is therefore possible that the cause lies in the cells which are responsible for the make-up of the feather.

Since these forms are mostly present with either very young birds, which will either get their normal colouring after the first moult or die during the moult, or either with older birds one could also consider a hormonal cause but this would require intensive scientific research which I do not see happening.

As you can see there is no one answer. We have several possibilities but at the same time they also invoke new questions.

A different possibility which we cannot overlook is that it is maybe a disease and then the key question is: can we in good faith use these birds for breeding purposes? Most of these red birds die young and we must not forget that not only a ‘different colour’ is the effect of a mutation. Several diseases themselves are mutations but these have a far less desirable effect than simply a different colour in the feathers. If it should arise that this is a lethal factor than we are better off without them.
What is important is that people who are dealing with or who will deal with these red birds, keep a good record of their data and if possible forward it to us. Then hopefully time will tell.

Dirk Van den Abeele
MUTAVI, Research and Advice Group

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References:

BOETTICHER, H. 1926. Mutant of A.roseicollis. Orn. Monatsber. 34 : 18.
SETH-SMITH, D. 1921. Stray Notes (Mutant of A. roseicollis Avic. Maag. (3) 12 : 106-108
KRUKENBERG, C.F.W. 1882. Die Federfarbstoffe der Psittaciden. Vergleichend-physiologische Studien Reihe 2, Abtlg. 2, 29_36.
MCGRAW, K.J., Geoffrey E. Hill And Robert S. Parker. 2003: Carotenoid Pigments In A Mutant Cardinal: Implications For The Genetic And Enzymatic Control Mechanisms Of Carotenoid Metabolism In Birds
MCGRAW, K.J., M.C. Nogareb  2004. Carotenoid pigments and the selectivity of psittacofulvin-based coloration systems in parrots
MCGRAW K.J. and Mary C. Nogare, 2005. Distribution of unique red feather pigments in parrots
STRADI, R. 1998 The colour of flight: carotenoids in bird plumage. Milan, Italy: Solei Gruppo Editoriale Informatico.
STRADI, R. 1999 Pigmenti e sistematica degli uccelli. Colori in volo: il piumaggio degli uccelli (eds. L. Brambilla, G. Canali, E. Mannucci, R. Massa, N. Saino,
STRADI, R & G. Zerbi. pp. 117–146, Milan, Italy: Universita degli Studi di Milano.
STRADI, R., Pini, E. & Celetano, G. 2001 The chemical structure of the pigments in Ara macao plumage. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. B 130, 57–63.
VÖLKER, O. 1936 Ueber den gelben Federfarbstoff des Wellensittichs (Melopsittacus undulatus (Shaw)). J. Ornithol. 84, 618–630.