The Magic of Basic Seraphim Genetics

So, what is it that makes Seraphim so special genetically, this “thing” that causes them to transform from a red Satinette color pattern to a pigment free, pure dazzling white? And how does this differ from the white of other pigeons in pattern of inheritance? And what else is going on genetically in Seraphim that makes these Fancy Pigeons different than their breed of origin, the Classic Oriental Frill?

Let’s start with some basic definitions and descriptions of what we know at this point – based upon the known history of the breed and breeding experiments – of the crucial genetic components that make Seraphim distinct from other breeds. As for color, the “Seraph Color Gene Complex” – the combination of genes that cause recessive red to appear and disappear – is the key.

SATINETTE PIEBALD:  The first genetic requirement is the Satinette Piebald pattern of color distribution, a pattern that also includes the Dominant White Flight gene. The three additional genes of the Seraph Color Gene Complex are overlaid on the Satinette Piebald color pattern. These are “recessive red”  combined with the “white-sides gene” and an as yet undefined “tail-whitening” gene(s). (The so-called white-sides and tail whitening “genes” may not be genes at all however. Rather, they may be genetic “switches” or gene controllers. As genetic switches they are inherited, but they are not “genes” per se. Genes direct the manufacture of specific proteins; switches are gene controllers, turning genes on or off, making them function or not.  In the case of Seraphim, the recessive red gene is initially turned  to “on” to produce pigment, but then quickly turned to “off” by the White-Sides and Tail-Whitening gene switches to create the absence of pigment in the adult.) 

The Piebald genetics that make the “Satinette” pattern of a pure white body, head, neck and primary flights with colored wing shields and tail has long been established in Oriental Frills. Along with the additional recessive red gene  and the White-Sides and Tail Whitening “controllers” (or “switches”), it is presumed to be integral to the Seraph Color Gene Complex. The inheritance of the Piebald-ism genes for the body and their patterns of visible expression are poorly understood and may also be a consequence of switches as well as actual genes. Most piebald patterns are difficult to maintain without highly selective breeding and very careful attention to color patterns when pairing birds. Interestingly in Seraphim, juveniles which have mismarked pigmented feathers in areas that are supposed to be white Piebald still molt completely to white, suggesting that the “controllers” that stop pigment production in the wing-shields and tail are also having an effect on the whole body, head, and neck. 

RECESSIVE RED MUTATION: The Recessive Red mutation is a recessive gene on one of the regular (autosomal) chromosomes which, when transmitted from each parent, overrides or masks the primary ash red, blue, and brown sex-linked color genes that normally determine the basic color of all pigeons. It usually masks patterns as well, with exceptions. Birds with a pair of these recessive genes will appear “red”, while birds with only one of these genes will show the color carried by their sex chromosomes – ash red, blue, or brown. Recessive Red is epigenetic to all other colors except recessive white and albino, i.e. it hides or “paints over” them so they are not visually expressed. Recessive Red does not “paint over” white piebald areas or stencil patterns however. Recessive Red Satinette Piebald birds will thus appear red in the wingshields and tail regardless of the underlying sex-linked color of the bird, and they will show a lacewing, lacetail, or spot-tail pattern. The “Dilute” gene will modify the red color to yellow. Since all Seraphim are Satinette Piebald as well as homozygous for Recessive Red or Yellow, they appear at first feather to be marked as Red (or Yellow) Satinettes. Seraphim babies are never white.

THE WHITE-SIDES GENE: The “White-Sides Gene” is expressed ONLY in birds homozygous for Recessive Red or Recessive Yellow (Dilute), and it is probably not a gene, but rather a gene controller or switch. You will never see it expressed in an ash red, brown, or blue pigeon.  Pigeons of any color may carry the White-Sides trait invisibly. If a recessive red or yellow pigeon carries one copy of the White-Sides gene, the wing-shield will turn partially white or “rose” with the first adult molt; if it carries two copies the wingshield will turn completely white. Seraphim are homozygous for “White-Sides” – they carry two copies of the trait so it is fully expressed at the first molt – their red shields are replaced with white. (Again, I’m fairly convinced that “White-Sides” is not a gene; it is more likely a switch that turns the Recessive Red pigment production gene on and then off, or a mutated master controller DNA sequence that directs a switch to turn the Recessive Red pigment production gene off. The biology of how genes actually work and are controlled is interesting and complicated. More is learned every day. It’s not as simple as we once thought.)

THE TAIL-WHITENING GENE: The “tail-whitening” gene(s) is presumed to be a separate autosomal gene (or genes) that causes the tail to stop producing pigment and turn white. The mechanism is not understood. (Probably not understood because, until only recently, no one understood the concept of “master controllers” and “switches” in regard to genes. Again, I suspect the “tail whitening gene” is really just a mutation in the master controller that causes it to signal the genetic switch to flip to “off” at a certain point in feather pigment production. This will eventually be proven one way or another. How the Tail-Whitening trait is affected by the White-Sides trait is completely unknown, but it is interesting that the two seem to function in concert only in Seraphim and Tschinnie Uzbek Tumblers. ** In experimental crosses of Seraphim with pure recessive red pigeons, crosses of the F1 and F2 generations result in birds with a mix of rose, red, and whitesides in the shield with red or white tails, proving that the traits can be split out. In Seraphim the whitening effects of the various traits act as though they are switched on together, but it is not known if the genetic switch mechanism and location is the same for each effect or what precisely causes the specific gene governing that location (wing-shield, tail, body) to react to the signal to stop making pigment. **Note: There is a color variety of Uzbek Tumbler called a “Tschinnie” that is native to the Ottoman area (modern day Turkey etc.) that is recessive red and molts to either pure white or various beautiful predictable patterns of red and white with the first molt. There is a description of Tschinnies in Axel Sell’s book “Pigeon Genetics,” pp. 130-132. In personal email conversation with Dr. Sell he acknowledges that the genetic similarites between Seraphim and Tschinnies cannot be ignored, as they both are Recessive Red with the Tail-Whitening and White-Sides trait, and the Oriental Frill and Uzbek Tumbler breeds arose in the same area of the world. 


The Tschinnie colored Uzbek Tumbler may be the ancestral source of the recessive red and all of the whitening genes that exist in Seraphim today. For various reasons I suspect the Red Neck variety to be the most likely culprit. In test crosses performed by Andreas Leif in 2006 of the RedHead/Neck variety, the RedHead/Neck trait was found to be allelic to White-Sides; Leif also suspected that a dominant enabler (switch) was required for expression of both the Whitesides and RedHead/Neck trait. (Photo from Axel Sell, “Pigeon Genetics,” page 131.

According to Mr. Sell there is anecdotal evidence that the Tschinnie color gene combination was deliberately crossed into Old-Fashioned Oriental Frills, probably in the 1800’s. If this is true then, no matter how small the possibility, it could be predicted that Anya Ellis’s effort to make a recessive red Satinette Classic Oriental Frill in the U.S. in 1986 could throw those genes back together again.  The Classic Oriental Frill had been essentially abandoned in the United States at that time and the breed was not recognized by the NPA. Everyone was breeding Moderns instead. Anya’s original project caused her to seek high and low for Old-Fashioned Oriental Frills (as they were called then) and bring them to her loft because she needed to locate recessive red genes if they existed and she needed genetic variability. She became distracted by the Seraphim Project, however, and spent the next 30+ years working on that instead.  Others became interested in the Classic Oriental Frill again because of the Seraphim Project and Anya sold many of her Satinettes to other interested breeders including Harold Collett who later established the Classic Oriental Frill Club in 2003. Anya’s projects thus set the wheels in motion that both created Seraphim AND re-established the Classic Oriental Frill breed which has today become so popular. A Recessive Red Satinette, however, was not ever created by Ms. Ellis and could not be created from within the existing population of Classic Oriental Frills because a pure recessive red did not already exist within the population. Historically red Satinettes were always a problem in both Modern and Old Fashioned Oriental Frills. The color quality was not good and they tended to fade to white or near-white with successive molts. This “red problem” was further exacerbated by the fact that Ms. Ellis gave many of her Classic Oriental Frills to interested breeders who became the early members of the Classic Old Frill Club, and some of those birds were carriers of the Seraph Color Gene Complex, a color trait that has been bred out for the most part since. Since then, however, new members of the Classic Old Frill Club began working with recessive red, and ultimately Mike McLin succeeded in creating high quality Red Satinette Classic Oriental Frills by using an out-cross to a high quality red Modern Oriental Frill and aggressively culling the offspring to eventually eliminate the whitening genes linked to red that had plagued the original Classic Oriental Frill breed from the beginning. (Purebred Pigeon Magazine. Mike McLin – “Making it More Interesting,” March/April 2020, pp. 56-57.) Others may have had success using out-crosses as well but simply not published about it. “Red” is now recognized in the Classic Old Frill Club in both Satinettes and Blondinettes. All of this information is important both for Seraphim fanciers and Classic Oriental Frill fanciers. But back to the genetics of Seraphim! Based upon all of the research I’ve done I’m left to conclude that The Seraph Color Gene Complex is the result of accidentally re-combining ancestral Tschinnie color genes with Satinette Piebald color genes. If only I could get ahold of a Red- Head/Neck Tschinnie! A test cross is needed. Until that happens I’m dedicated to this theory.

And now for the sake of simplicity in understanding all of this we’re going to pretend that the Seraph Color Gene Complex is a combination of genes inherited together as a single entity rather than multiple genes and switches and master controllers. It makes it easier to think about breeding them if one understands that although the Seraph Color Gene Complex is many genes (or modifiers) it will always breed true as long as Seraphim are bred to each other. If a Seraph is bred to any other color the Seraph Color Gene Complex will be split up and visually disappear in the offspring.

So, to review: in the Seraph Color Gene Complex the Recessive Red, White-Sides, and some unidentified Tail-Whitening genes were somehow all accidentally put together in 1986 in two offspring of Old Fashioned (now Classic) Satinette Oriental Frills, birds that had an established piebald color pattern which makes the whole bird white except for the wingshields and tail. This Satinette Piebald color pattern  is the defining genetic background color pattern characteristic. The visual color pattern in juvenile Seraphim is therefore entirely white with the recessive red gene showing up only as red marked wing-shields and tails, as one would expect for an Satinette Piebald marked bird. The White-Sides and Tail-Whitening genes (switches) turn on variably part way through the fledging process, turning off pigment production sometime early in juvenile feather production resulting in varying amounts of red coloration in the wing shields and tail. The feathers that would normally be pure red in a juvenile because of the recessive red genes may thus be merely splashed with red on the tips or part way up the feather shaft due to the stoppage of pigment production.  Normally the White-Sides trait is not expressed at all in the juvenile but in Seraphim it is having an effect as the very first feathers come in, an expression of the gene (trait) that is different than seen in other breeds.

When the adult molt occurs at about four months ALL the adult feathers come in pure white. Once activated in the early weeks of life, the White-Sides and Tail-Whitening traits prevent the production of pigment for the rest of the bird’s life. The only time color will ever be seen in a Seraph is thus with initial feather development in the nest. As far as we know, no other white Fancy Pigeon in existence owes its absence of color pigment to this particular combination of genetic processes. Seraphim are unique in this way.

This 5-week old Seraph demonstrates the visual effects of the Satinette Piebald genes and the recessive red genes. Color is primarily expressed on the wing shields and tail in Satinette pattern.  (See discussion.)

The same Seraph after his first molt, now  white due to the full expression of the White-Sides and Tail-Whitening traits linked to the Recessive Red gene in Seraphim. Note that the red mis-marked feathers in the piebald white areas of the chest and head in the juvenile at left are replaced above with white as well.
OTHER REQUIRED TRAITS: The needle-point peak in the Seraph is autosomal recessive. The unusually large ruffled frill (or cravat) is the result of two recessive genes which code for the chest frill (kr1 and kr2) that are  both present in the Seraph. The feathered toes are called “grouse” and are a recessive trait. Like a kid glove, each toe is individually seen and individually feathered. The short beak (ku) is polygeneic, i.e. is inherited with the involvement of more than one gene. As you can see, Seraphim carry a lot of recessive traits, all of which have to be donated by each parent and present on chromosomes in pairs in order to be seen.


The visual conversion from recessive red Satinette pattern to pure white as a result of the expression of the Seraph Color Gene Complex –  Satinette Piebald, recessive red, the white-sides gene, and the tail-whitening gene(s) – is an absolute defining trait for Seraphim. Any bird that does not show recessive red (or yellow – the dilute of red) in the wing-shields and tail and go through this transformation does NOT carry the Seraph Color Gene Complex and is not – by definition – a Seraph. Selective breeding for over thirty years has created additional enhancements of body form and feather with an overall refinement and lengthening effect, giving the Seraph an unusually beautiful long flowing line, height, posture, and overall stunning regal look that is distinctly different from the breed of origin, the Old-Fashioned (Now “Classic”) Oriental Frill. The toe feathers are more refined and delicate, the skull has a more defined arc, the swoop and mane are deeper, the frill is larger, and the beak is more downturned. This is easy to see when comparing the 2017 Show Standard for Seraphim to the Show Standard of the Classic Oriental Frill. Since 1986 the differences between the two breeds have become increasingly evident as both have been modified by different goals of selective breeding. The Seraph is a breed that is separate and stands on its own. 


(Please note the links in this article to Wikipedia entries and other sources that can be helpful. This can all be very difficult even when stated as simply as possible! Yet some basic understanding of these principles is necessary for the breeder of any Fancy Pigeon. The National Pigeon Association website has in-depth articles on pigeon genetics for those who wish to immerse themselves.)

CHROMOSOMES: The pigeon has forty pairs of chromosomes (or eighty individual  chromosomes). Unlike other cells in the body, the sperm and the egg each have just forty individual chromosomes, or half the total, thanks to a process called meiosis which occurs only in testes and ovaries. When fertilization occurs and the sperm penetrates the nucleus of the egg,  each sperm chromosome finds it’s match in the egg nucleus and pairs up with it. The  fertilized egg now has a complete complement of forty paired chromosomes, or eighty total chromosomes, a normal pigeon cell. That cell immediately begins to divide using a new process called mitosis in which all of the chromosomes are duplicated just before division so that each division results in two cells with the full complement of eighty chromosomes. A great deal is now known about how this initial cell becomes an embryo and then a fully developed chick, but the details are too complex to discuss here. Enormous textbooks are written on the subject, and every day massive dissertations as well! It is wonderfully complex and amazing.

Anyway. During meiosis the various genes on the individual chromosomes remain reasonably consistent, but variation exists in the proteins that make up the DNA in those genes. Every time a new egg or sperm is formed there is the possibility that its chromosomes carry tiny changes  in the order, or sequence, of the DNA proteins in the various gene segments. It is this possibility for change that results in genetic variability, or differences that may be seen in the fully formed organism.

“Dominant” genes are segments of DNA that always express themselves over any mutation of the same gene sitting on the opposite paired chromosome. For instance, if a mother donates a gene for  blue eyes and a father donates a gene for brown eyes, the child will always have brown eyes; brown always dominates any other eye color. The blue gene is there, but it is not visually expressed; it is “hidden” and will only show up if given a chance to pair up with another blue gene in the next generation. That blue gene may be passed on for several generations before finally getting the chance to appear when matched up with another person also carrying a blue gene. The blue gene is thus “recessed”, or hidden – a “recessive” gene. It may also be called a recessive “trait”, or characteristic. Recessive genes or traits become important only when both parents carry them, as therein lies the only possibility for them to be expressed, or seen.

“Partial Dominant”, or “Dominant With Variable Penetrance” are terms used to describe genes that are always expressed – but to a variable degree – when present, depending upon the effect of other genetic conditions present. Feathered legs and feet are an example of this phenomenon. The gene that causes this is dominant to the bare leg gene, but the variability in the penetrance – or visual expression – of the gene can result in anything from enormous leg “muffs” to “slipper” feathers to “grouse” feathers to “stubble” and anything in-between, depending upon other genes modifiers present that add to, or subtract from, the degree to which feather growth on the feet or legs is allowed.

There is also something called linkage. Sometimes genes are locked together and are passed on as a group that cannot be broken apart by the process of cell division and meiosis. In such instances, these linked genes are always expressed together at the same time, so for all intents and purposes the combination acts as if it is a single gene in the way it is passed on or inherited. Linkage may be partially responsible for some of the way color is passed on in Seraphim.

So let’s review. Now you understand that each parent bird passes on half of its set of chromosomes in the egg or sperm so that the new chick has a full set of chromosomes – half of them from each parent. You also understand that some genes on chromosomes overpower, or dominate weaker recessive genes at the same location on the opposite paired chromosome; the paired chromosomes may carry a recessive gene each, a dominant gene each, or a combo of recessive and dominant. As Dominant always wins, the only time you can see hidden recessive traits is when they are on both chromosomes in the pair, so the trait has to come from each parent to appear. Linked gene combinations transfer multiple traits to the offspring all at once, and always together, so for all intents and purposes linked genes are inherited as if they are a single gene or trait. The “Seraphim Color Gene Complex” is not one gene, but a combination of genes and gene switches, most of which are independent, but some of which may be linked genes or traits – we don’t know for sure. We DO know there are a minimum of two color genes and very likely multiple master controllers and switches that all have to be present for color expression in Seraphim. We also know that color genes are not the only thing that make a Seraph, as all the other genes and gene modifiers for physical form and feather structure and ornamentation must be embedded as well for that beautiful final creation to appear.

SPECIAL CHROMOSOMES: So, let’s go back to those forty pairs of chromosomes once again. One of those pairs has a very special function: it determines the sex, or gender of the bird. This pair has a special name: sex chromosomes. (I know….big surprise, eh?) The other thirty-nine pairs of chromosomes are called autosomal chromosomes, and they program almost everything else in pigeon development with a few exceptions

In Pigeons the sex chromosomes are called Z and W. The hen is ZW and the cock is ZZ. So the W sex chromosome is responsible for creating the female sex. The hen thus determines the sex of the chick through the egg, as she always donates a half of her set of chromosomes to an egg. By chance, half her eggs will carry a Z and half will carry a W; the eggs with W will produce hens. The cock can only contribute one of his two Z’s, since that’s all he has. In pigeons, the genes for the primary base color of the feathers – ash red, brown, and blue – are also located on the Z sex chromosome. This knowledge can be a useful tool. Since the hen has only one Z, a breeder KNOWS that she has just one basic color gene on her Z chromosome and can pass only that one color gene to ALL of her male offspring. Her color is also true – her appearance matches her one color gene on her Z sex chromosome; if she is blue she carries only blue, if she is ash red she carries only ash red, if she is brown she carries only brown; nothing is hidden from the eye. Her W does not carry a color gene, so her female offspring MUST have their base color determined by one of the two Z chromosomes from the cock, whichever one he contributes at fertilization. One can thus determine what colors the cock is carrying by the colors that are expressed in his female offspring. This is a general basic fact that can be helpful for all breeders.

I wish it were just that simple, but obviously there are other color-pigment and pattern altering genes present in pigeons or one wouldn’t see all of the different colors and patterns one sees at Fancy Pigeon Shows. Most of these color and pattern modifiers are located on the autosomal chromosomes and a few on the sex chromosomes. No matter what, though, every pigeon has a base color of ash-red, blue, or brown on the sex chromosomes; those colors can either be fully expressed, modified, or completely masked by color-modifying genes on the autosomal or sex chromosomes. This is true in Seraphim too, of course. As you already know, the autosomal recessive red genes in the juvenile Seraph are expressed as a red that covers the true base color of the bird (ash-red, blue, and brown); the recessive red shows in the wing shields and tail, and even though the red is recessive, it masks and dominates the true base color of the pigeon coded for on the Z sex chromosomes because homozygous autosomal recessive red is epistatic to all sex-linked base Z colors – it hides them. The pied and white-flight genes of Satinette Piebald show white in the flights and body from the beginning and remain that way. The tail whitening and white-sides genes turn off the visual recessive red of the tail and wing-shields part way through the initial production of feathers. The genetic job is done. A shimmering pure white bird appears that actually has a hidden Satinette color pattern of recessive red that appeared only briefly, and a base color of ash red, blue, or brown that never appeared at all even though the genes are still there. The Seraph Color Gene Complex wins and eliminates all color. You will never see the hidden genetic base color programmed into the Z sex chromosomes in the life of a Seraph, and you will only briefly see the recessive red—the visual clue that indicates a Seraph in the nest.

It IS possible, however, to determine the basic hidden Z chromosome color of a Seraph hen by crossing it with a brown cock of any type. The male offspring will carry her Z color chromosome, and it will be visible since the offspring will only have one half the recessive Seraph Color Gene Complex genes so they won’t be expressed.   A Seraph cock paired to a brown hen likewise will show his hidden Z base color(s) in all the offspring. Not that it matters; it’s just interesting if one wanted to know.


AIM BIRDS: Old Fashioned Satinette Oriental Frills were used originally by Anya Ellis to develop the Seraphim breed. Because of this, there are still in existence today some Satinette marked birds used in the breeding program that carry half of the Seraph Color Gene Complex. In careful breeding programs like Anya’s, these Satinette color marked birds have over time developed the same physical form as high quality Seraphim since they were used for decades to develop the breed. Those that were most like Seraphim were used intermittently for breeding to diversify the gene pool; those that were structurally less like Seraphim were removed from the gene pool. These birds are called AIM birds.  Outstanding AIM birds are Satinette marked and have the same physical structure as modern day Show Quality Seraphim. It is rare to own or find such a bird, but they can be used in a carefully managed Seraphim breeding program. When paired with a Seraph they will produce 50% Seraphim.  It is imperative, however, that the pedigree of the AIM bird be known before it is used in a breeding program.

To the left here is an old archival photo of an example of an AIM bird. The father is a Seraph, the mother is another AIM bird, a brown lacewing spot-tail Satinette. The Seraphim Color Gene Complex is hidden in this bird because it exists on only one half the chromosomes, so it looks like a Classic Satinette Oriental Frill. This is a very, very colorful bird and is a startling example of the sorts of colors and patterns that may be hidden on the Z and other chromosomes in your Seraphim, But even though it is a second generation from an outcross to a Classic Satinette Oriental Frill, it still overall looks way too much like a Classic Oriental Frill in structure. If crossed back to a really outstanding Seraph, half of its babies would be colored Splits (AIM birds) just like it, and half would carry the complete set of the Seraph Color Gene Complex and turn from recessive red Satinette to pure white. Of those,  some might be of reasonable quality and starting to look overall more like Seraphim and less like Classic Oriental Frills. With each generation the back-cross of a newer generation AIM bird to a Show Quality Seraph will result in better quality AIM birds that will – aside from being color-marked – eventaully look physically exactly like Seraphim. As far as I know, the only two people who ever used AIM birds to refine and develop the breed are Anya Ellis and myself (using an original AIM bird I got from Anya.)

So in 2017 and beyond if a color marked bird is to be used to improve or expand a flock of Seraphim, there is only one line of birds that should be used, as the only modern AIM birds in existence in the world that truly have the High Superior structural qualities of Champion Seraphim and that could or should be used to improve a Seraph breeding program are in the possession of Anya Ellis or in lofts where they are the direct descendents of her birds without any additional outcrosses. The breed has developed so far now that a color marked bird from any other source should not be introduced into a Seraph breeding program.



2 thoughts on “The Magic of Basic Seraphim Genetics

  1. Dear Friends in the hobby,
    Have You ever reared a satinette marked, homozygous rec, red colored bird without any “molttowhite” effect, during your seraphim project?
    With regards: Arpad Cséplő

  2. Hi Arpad.
    Anne Ellis was trying to get recessive red Satinette’s when the Seraphim mutation occurred in the first place. It is possible to get homozygous recessive red Satinette’s from Satinette’s carrying recessive red, but it is not genetically possible to get recessive red Satinette marked adult birds out of Seraphim; unless, of course, another mutation accidentally occurs to un-link the tail-whitening and white-sides gene from the recessive red genes. Seraphim babies are always Satinette marked recessive red in varying strengths with their juvenile plumage, as you know, but they always molt to white.
    Occasionally a mosaic will appear in the Seraphim breeders loft, a bird with a patch of brown, ash red, or blue feathers on a wing shield or tail. This condition is likely caused by an embryonic gene coding mistake in a limited patch of cells that deletes the whitening effect. The bird will appear white as an adult except for the mosaic area, which is random and not symmetrical or set in any particular pattern.
    Dave Coster

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