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Why birds of a feather don’t always stick together

Last Updated: Friday, January 20, 2012 - 12:29

Washington: Visible traits don’t always coincide with genetics, a new study has claimed.

According to the new study conducted by researchers from the University of Utah, a bird from one breed may have huge foot feathers, while a closely related breed does not, yet two unrelated pigeon breeds both may have large foot feathers.

“Most people think of pigeons as rats of the sky, but in fact they’re really incredibly diverse,” Michael Shapiro, senior author of the study, said.

More than 350 breeds of pigeons differ in colour, colour pattern, body size, beak size and shape, structure of the skeleton, posture, vocalizations, feather placement and flight behaviour.

With the help from pigeon breeders worldwide, the researchers studied the genetic relationships and visible traits of 361 pigeons from 70 domestic breeds and two free-living populations, one from Salt Lake City and the other on Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

“What we found through this study is that birds that are only distantly related to each other can have very similar traits, and others that are very closely related to each other can look quite different in terms of their traits,” Shapiro said.
In some cases, birds of a feather don’t stick together – genetically. The old German owl pigeon and English trumpeter both have head feathers known as a head crest, yet the two pigeon breeds aren’t closely related.

In another case, English trumpeters have feathers on their feet instead of scales. So do English pouters. Yet they are not closely related.

Other examples include traits not matching genetics. Pigeon breeds known as the African owl and Budapest short-faced tumbler both have very short beaks, but they are not closely related.

The African owl and old German owl pigeon breeds both have short beaks and are closely related, yet the African owl pigeon has a plain head, while the German owl has a head crest. And the English pouter and Brunner pouter are closely related, yet the former has foot feathers and the latter does not.

The study has been published online in the journal Current Biology.


First Published: Friday, January 20, 2012 - 12:29

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