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Pet Bird Color Mutations

See what new color mutations are on the rise with Indian ring-necked parakeets, cockatiels, budgies, lovebirds and more.

By Marci Hummel

Most prospective bird owners — other than breeders, of course — probably aren’t all that interested in how a certain color is produced. They just know the bird that’s caught their eye is the brightest, most beautiful bird they’ve ever seen. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and some color mutations — or varieties as they’re sometimes called — are more popular than others.
 
Rick Jordan, owner of Hill Country Aviaries in Texas, specializes in color mutations in Indian ring-necked parakeets, conures, cockatiels and more. He defined mutation as a genetic change in the visual color of a bird. “It’s still a pure species,” he said and pointed out that color mutations occur naturally in the wild. “Nature starts mutations, not people,” Jordan said, pointing out that mutations have been found in wild-caught birds such as the lutino cockatiel, the blue yellow-naped Amazon parrot and the red-pied severe macaw.

Jordan said Hill Country Aviaries has 27 varieties of Indian ring-necked parakeets and plum-headed parakeets along with many mutations among green-cheeked, black-capped and brown-throated conures. He also has quaker mutations and even cinnamon red-lored Amazons. Some favorites are pineapple green-cheeked and blue green-cheeked conures and violet ringnecks.
 
Richard Cusick, owner of Outback Aviaries in California, also loves breeding birds for brightness and color. And, he said, the brighter the bird, the greater the demand.
 
“What I get the most calls for are green cheek (conure) mutations,” he said. One of the hottest of these is turquoise and related varieties such as the new turquoise pineapple — a triple combination of turquoise, yellow-sided and cinnamon green-cheeked conure. Although this is the newest mutation, Cusick said the three favorites right now are turquoise, yellow-sided and cinnamon green cheeks.
 
Prices vary around the country and from breeder to breeder but are often related to the popularity and newness of a color. Cusick said a pair of turquoise green cheeks originally sold for about $2,500, but, in the last four years, the price has dropped to around $1,400 a pair — and will continue to drop. “It’s supply and demand,” he explained, but he said most mutations of ring necks and green cheeks are affordable. And for those who like a little “fire” in their bird, Cusick predicted prices for mutations of pied and red sun conures will soon be reasonable for pet owners.
 
Overwhelming Bird Colors
The list of colors can be overwhelming, especially among the Asian parakeets. Here’s a sample: Indian ring neck mutations include dark green, olive, gray green, aqua blue, turquoise blue, turquoise cobalt, turquoise gray, blue, cobalt, mauve, gray, violet green, violet turquoise, violet blue, violet, lutino, aqua-ino, turquoise-ino, albino, cinnamon, edged, grizzled, opaline, misty, pallid, bronze, pied and others. Then there’s the new white-headed white-tailed violet.
 
Further complicating the issue is the fact that color names may differ by species. “It’s mind-boggling,” Cusick said. For example, the opaline mutation in the red-rumped parrot is the same as the yellow-sided green-cheeked conure, the rose Bourke’s parrot and the pearl cockatiel.

Cusick said there is a tendency to make the inheritance of color genes harder to understand than necessary. “There are basically three types of inheritance — sex-linked, recessive and dominant,” he said. “Once you understand how each works, you understand how every color mutation is inherited no matter what species you are talking about.”
 
As an example, Cusick said the color cinnamon is sex-linked in cockatiels as well as every other species. “If you understand how the cinnamon gene is inherited in cockatiels then you understand how it is inherited in Indian ring necks or red rumps or Amazons, etc. Not only that, but if you understand how cinnamon — which is sex-linked — is inherited, you alsounderstand how sex-linked lutino is inherited and opaline and every other sex-linked color gene in every species.”

What Bird Is That?
Cusick said that misnamed mutations can add to the confusion. He said cinnamon green-cheeked conures were originally called fallows and still are by a number of breeders. “If you knew that fallow was inherited recessively, you might have thought the fallow green cheek was a recessive mutation. However, it is sex-linked and therefore is a cinnamon.”
 
Cusick said that most misnamed and misidentified mutations involve the cinnamon, fallow and dilute colors. “Sometimes, as is the case with pineapple green-cheeked conures, marketing names are given that give no clue as to inheritance.”
 
For those who aren’t versed in genetics, Cusick explained that a primary mutation is a change in plumage coloration produced by a single mutant gene. A secondary color mutation is the result of a combination of two or more primary color mutations. Examples of primary mutations include lutino, cinnamon, opaline, blue, turquoise, gray-green and more. Secondary color mutations include albino — a combination of lutino and blue gray (gray-green and blue), cinnamon-blue and so on.

“Natural” Color
Color mutations occur at the same rate in the wild as they do in captivity, said Cusick, and certain color mutations become prized for their beauty. However, it is indiscriminate inbreeding that is responsible for the inheritance of undesirable traits, not mutant color genes.
 
Cusick acknowledged that in nature the survivability of color mutants is low, but maintained that in captivity there is no difference in survivability between normally colored birds and color mutations. “Both should be prized, but neither has a specific advantagein captivity,” he said. Cusick also said mutant color genes cannot replace normal color genes because a color gene is only one in thousands. “It can be selected against and eliminated from the population,” he explained.
 
Although a certain amount of inbreeding is necessary to produce a color mutation, Cusick said color breeders should seek to strike the proper balence between inbreeding and outcrossing.
 
A Roll Of The Dye
What about predictability? Cusick said if you understand how certain mutations are inherited, then you know exactly what colors to expect. “Now, percentages are a different matter,” he said. “Genetic percentages are a lot like the slot machines in Vegas. Just because a certain color is expected 25 percent of the time, you cannot expect that you will get that color once in every clutch of four babies.”
 
As an example, Cusick said if you have a normally colored green cheek male split to a cinnamon, paired with a normally colored female, 50 percent of the female offspring, or 25 percent of the total offspring, should be cinnamon. “However, you might get two or three clutches in a row with no cinnamon babies at all ... or you might get four cinnamons in your first clutch of babies.”
 
What’s the most fascinating thing about breeding for color? “Color mutation breeders are like kids on Christmas morning,” Cusick answered. “You have some idea what you might get when you open that nest box, but it is always exciting to look in the box for the first time and see the bouquet of colors.”

Julie Allen of Florida, president of the National Cockatiel Society and a longtime certified cockatiel judge, heartily agreed. “It would be pretty dull if we didn’t have any variety,” she said. “We might breed for one thing as exhibitors, but when we go into an aviary and see these beautiful jewels out there, a beautiful mutation just sparkles.”
 
One of those sparklers is the lemon cockatiel, which, according to Allen, is currently very popular. The newest mutation is the black-headed cockatiel. Allen said this mutation was imported into the United States from Brazil and is not yet available to the general public. But the bird sounds like a stunner: The entire head is black and the rest of the bird may be cinnamon, white face or any other color, including the normal gray.

The beauty of color mutations is among the most appealing of their characteristics, Allen indicated. She said white-faced pieds and white-faced pearls are currently the most desirable with both cockatiel breeders and pet owners, although exhibition breeders don’t breed specifically for color. Allen said they breed for vibrancy, size, conformation, balance — or proportion — and health.
 
Allen said exhibitors sometimes do have color preferences. The pieds are favorites, and Allen herself likes the lutino pearls: These are yellow birds with dark yellow lace on their wings and red eyes with a dark yellow crest. She also has gold-cheeked cockatiels and breeds for this mutation occasionally.
 
Like Jordan and Cusick, Allen doesn’t believe there are many truly normal grey cockatiels left in the United States, especially males. There is pearl in the background of nearly every male, she said.
 
Color Mutation Vs. Hybryd
A color mutation is much different from a hybrid bird. Rick Jordan of Hill Country Aviaries in Texas said, “Hybrids are not pure stock and are bred by crossing two species of parrot together. The parent stock, if pure to start with, remains pure and can be repaired later with a bird of its own species ... thus no harm is ever done to the gene pool. But, once a hybrid offspring is produced, this bird can never be pure and can never produce pure offspring in the future. Therefore, the act of breeding hybrids should not be done haphazardly ... there is an implied responsibility to maintain good records and to educate the public about this act."

On the other hand, Jordan said, “Color mutations are still ‘pure’ birds. They occur in nature, but often do not survive if the ‘new color’ is too vibrant and they are easily spotted by predators. Color mutations in captivity are perpetuated by breeding like-colored birds to like-colored birds (of two birds that carry the color gene). The resultant offspringwill often be the color that is desired. After many generations, a color mutation can be ‘magnified’ or combined with other colors if they are available in that species."
 
As for the future, Allen predicted cockatiel breeders will fine-tune the colors presently available to intensify and improve the tone of mutations. She said an example would be the steel-colored cinnamon with the goal to try to improve the intensity and obtain a brown tone. Also, breeders may try to breed a darker gray normal cockatiel. As for whitefaced, she thought refined patterns may be in the future to make these birds even more exquisite.

Some cockatiel mutations include cinnamon, pearl, lutino, pied, silver, fallow, whiteface, lutino whiteface (albino), cinnamon pearl, cinnamon-pearl-pied and cinnamon-pearl-whiteface.
 
Allen recommended that buyers looking for their first pet bird should stick with a normally colored cockatiel or a pearl. “They are strong and lovable,” she said — and, of course, beautiful.

Color Me Budgie
Louise Loeske is president of the American Budgerigar Society and also an exhibitor and breeder of exhibition budgies. She said the spangled variety of budgies was introduced a few years ago but maintained that there are no new budgie varieties at present.

When looking for a budgie, expect choices to be upward of 24 varieties. These include, but may not be limited to, blue, pied, yellow, lutino, yellowface, dark green, cobalt or dark blue, white, mauve, greywing, greying blue (also greywing dark blue and mauve), violet, fallow, yellow-wing, albino, cinnamon, opaline, white wing, yellowface, lacewing, mottled, spangled, saddleback and blackface.
 
Although Loeske said she doesn’t breed for color, she said her favorite color of budgie is the violet and violet opaline series. The violet has a violet-colored body with a white face and black stripes across the back. The opaline series has a clear V-back with opalescence extending into the wings. She also pointed out the exhibition budgie, or English budgerigar, is often larger than many of the colony-bred pet budgies.
 
Lovely Lovebird Colors
For those who love lovebirds — and who can resist a hand-fed, socialized gem of a lovebird — the color varieties are as enchanting as the birds themselves. According to Doug Bedwell of the African Lovebird Society, there are three sex-linked mutations of the peach face. These are the lutino, American cinnamon and the Australian cinnamon. He maintains in an article on the Society’s Web site that the cinnamons are less common than lutinos and so are less well known. The American cinnamon is whitefaced.
 
Other peach face mutations include the fallow, Australian recessive pied, lacewing, orangeface, whiteface blue, sea green and Dutch blue. Mutations in the Fisher’s, black-cheeked and Nyasa can include blue, lutino, yellow, dark factor, violet, fallow and pied.
 
Other Colorful Parrots
Color mutations are also common in the quaker parakeet. These include lutino, cinnamon, blue-cinnamon and pied.
 
But variety of color is not limited to hookbills. Canaries even have their own association for color: The National Colorbred Association is an international society devoted to the promotion, exhibition and development of colored canaries. Mutation colors are numerous, as may be expected and include entire series of colors such as rose, opal, ino and satinette, pastel, onyx, topaz and Euno. Expect to find the aforementioned yellow, white, blue, cinnamon, pied and so on. The list of available colors is amazing and is an article unto itself.
 
Finch breeders have also developed countless varieties. The zebra finch alone has several series of color mutations, including pied, black cheek, black breast, the penguin series, fawn, Florida fancy, chestnut-flanked white, silver, pied and Phaeo. And it’s the same with Gouldian finches. These mutations include red head, black head, yellow head and various combinations, plus various body and breast colors associated with the head color varieties. Detailed information on specific mutations for various finch species can be found on the Internet and from finch breeders’ organizations.
 
Dove breeders haven’t been idle, either. Ring neck mutations alone number more than 40 and include delightful variations such as bulleyed white, light cream, chimoy, dark ivory, rosy, orange and orange-pearled, roan, sunkist, platinum, apricot, blinde, silver ivory, silky, tangerine, dark frosty, frosty ash pearl, several variations of pied, albino, peach and so on.

To many, there’s nothing more beautiful or breathtaking than the birds normally found in nature. Indeed, the flash of a blue-and-gold or a scarlet macaw is unparalleled, as are the Amazons, conures and parakeets of the world. And the little parrotlets, be they Pacific, green rump, celestial or any other of the seven species, are gorgeous. But breeders ever strive for the unique, the pinnacle of perfection to color their world and ours with the best that nature, with a little help from humankind, can provide.


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Pet Bird Color Mutations

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Reader Comments
This information is wrong and out of date. The article needs a disclaimer stating the publishing date and the sources used. The lovebirds information is wrong.
Briana, Moorhead, MN
Posted: 9/23/2012 2:21:44 PM
Does the varied colors developed affect the health or life span of the bird?
janet, henderson, NV
Posted: 5/16/2012 4:29:13 PM
My husband and I were blessed to stumble upon a Pineapple Green Cheek Conure mutation. We named it Sunset (unsure of the gender at this time). Sunset is a beautiful conure. When we walked into the store Sunset was rolling around on the bottom of the cage and squeaking in such an adorable way.
Grace, Smithsburg, MD
Posted: 7/16/2011 1:16:41 PM
I love all the colors God has made our bird friends! Very interesting!
Terri, Ozark, AL
Posted: 12/12/2010 10:50:01 AM
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