By David D. Coster
As is often the case, the story of Seraphim started as an unexpected event. To tell the tale, we have to go clear back to 1986 and the tiny loft of Anne Ellis (Anya to her friends) somewhere near Milan, Illinois, USA. That year Anya – a petite, athletic woman with a magnificent wild blond mane – could best be described as a novice pigeon keeper in love with the beautiful Classic Oriental Frill pigeons she kept in her loft as pets. For Anya, keeping those attractive birds was an artistic and spiritual experience; she enjoyed being around them for their striking colors, their delightful sounds, their love-bonds, and their good-natured ways. Being an artistic, intuitive type, she was nurtured by the existence of these quaint little creatures. They added a peaceful dimension to her life. Though she didn’t understand the color genetics that made her birds so gorgeous, she loved the surprise of finding unexpected new colors in the babies of her little pets. Knowing little of Fancy Pigeon breeds, the National Pigeon Association, pigeon competitions, and the whole world of pigeon breeding and pigeon fanciers, she had started out with a wild pigeon and graduated to a few homers, ending up with Classic (“Old”) Oriental Frills one day after seeing one – a shining little star in a sea of regular looking pigeons – perched on the loft of her friend Art Grammens. The breed was no longer common, having largely been replaced by the larger, short-beaked Modern Oriental Frills in the mid 1900’s.
Over time Anya studied the colors and patterns displayed in her flock of Classic Oriental Frills and began to learn everything she could about them and color genetics. Little by little she became increasingly adept at understanding color genetics. She had seen a recessive red Modena once and really hoped to have such a color in her Frills some day. She also loved pure white pigeons.
Determined that she was more likely to get the red she wanted with a little help, she took some of her Classic Frills over to Bob Pettit for a color genetics consultation. Out of that bunch, he identified one that he was certain was carrying a recessive red gene and told Anya to use that bird to get started in her effort to create a red Satinette Classic Oriental Frill. She paired the blue bronze-bar cock Bob had identified as carrying recessive red with a brown t-pattern toy stencil hen. To her surprise, the hen was also carrying recessive red, and the first two babies were both recessive red. The odds for such a stroke of luck were low, and yet it happened. Unfortunately, the cock died while the babies were young, but the hen went on and raised them alone, another stroke of luck.
Over time it became clear that the red in the two youngsters was not the pretty improved Modena red Anya had seen before. As the molt began, the expected brighter red feathers did not appear. Instead, white feathers began to gradually replace the red ones. This was not what she expected. The experiment had seemingly failed. The two brothers joined the rest of the flock, and she stopped paying attention to them.
One morning several weeks later she went out early to the loft just as the sun was peeping into the window where her two little disappointments had been perched for the night. Both were caught in a beam of sunlight, glowing a dazzling, blinding white, stopping Anya in her tracks. The light reflection cast a halo. “Angels!” she thought. She had paid so little attention to them that she had not seen until that moment that the two youngsters had molted into the most pure, dazzling, entirely white adults one could imagine. She stared some more, and then – “Seraphim” – just popped into her head. So that’s how the “White Angel of the Pigeon Fancy” first appeared, and that’s how they were named.
Anya captured the brothers and raced over to Bob Pettit. “Look what happened!” she exclaimed. “It’s something new!” It felt to Anya that this unexpected event, this little miracle, was truly a gift. What beauty! What an impossibility! She had hoped for red Frills and hoped for white Frills, and now she had something better – a red pigeon that changed to white – she got both in one. Maybe this could be the start of something. Maybe whatever happened to cause this could be replicated. Maybe this could be the beginning of the artistry she had been looking for.
Anya asked Bob to help her get her birds established as a new breed. But Bob pointed out that the cause of the mutation that turned them white was not known. Anya had to dig deep into science and history now, not just art, if she had any hope for success with such a project. She had always raised her birds just for the pleasure of it. Bob patiently explained that the process for official recognition of a new breed was an arduous one. Did she have the stamina for it? “Yes! I have to! Such a gift has to be shared!”
And so she began. She paired a sliver hen with one Seraph cock (B1), and then back-crossed the first generation back to B1. A split brown hen out of the “B1” line was also paired to B1’s brother, Seraph cock W1, which resulted in the first Seraph hen in 1988. For the first two years all of the pairings resulted only in male Seraphim – not a single hen. A Seraph hen didn’t appear in the “B1 Line” until 1991. Thus Anya had to keep using Seraph cocks with “split” hens – birds that carried half the Seraph color genes, whatever those were – to start the Seraphim project. The “split” birds were named “AIM birds” by Anya’s friend, Ralph Marerro, because they were, he joked, “aiming to be Seraphim.” Her best AIM birds were her “Seraphim in disguise” until she produced her first Seraph hen in 1988, finally paving the way to fast forward the process of establishing the breed.
Over the next seven years the breed was defined by careful selective breeding. Little by little the bird became more refined. The frill deepened, the feather ornaments became more delicately ornate, and the physical form was gradually changed. It was an effort to create a work of art, a living sculpture, while at the same time attending to the needed breeding experiments to understand the genetics behind the transformation to white. Historically there were reports dating back to the 1960’s in America of recessive red pigeons gradually becoming partially or nearly all white over repeated molts, but not abruptly and completely the way Seraphim did. Bob Pettit helped Anya, searching far and wide for old-style (1930’s era) Old Oriental Frills with the characteristics she needed to achieve the creation she envisioned, and introduced her to Dr. Hollander who simultaneously helped design a breeding experiment using self recessive red wild-type pigeons to understand the color genetics involved. Dr. Hollander worried that Anya had too little space in her loft to do the necessary breeding trials to sort out the color genetics of Seraphim. Tim Kvidera thus took some of Anya’s Seraphim to his large loft in Minnesota to perform breeding experiments where he determined that the recessive red gene was linked with the “White-Sides Gene.” The tail whitening genes could not be determined, but seemed to be linked to the Recessive Red and White-Sides Genes in some way. The answers slowly came in as the work of refining the breed continued.
By January 1995, nine years after B1 and W1 first appeared, Anya had met the National Pigeon Association requirements of showing five Seraph cocks and five Seraph hens at three consecutive Grand National Shows. She had written the first show standard for Seraphim and had given a presentation to the Board of Trustees on the new breed. Her work and that of her friends and associates paid off, and Seraphim were officially recognized as a new breed by the National Pigeon Association.
In December of 1995, Anya met Jean-Louis Frindel at the German National Show in Nuremburg, Germany. Jean-Louis, of Lalaye-Charbes, France, is the artist who paints the pigeon standards for the German and European Standard books. He was taken by the beauty of the Seraph, and decided that France should be the first European country to officially recognize Seraphim.
As hoped, The French National Pigeon Association (SNC) was the first in Europe to recognize Seraphim in 1997. Arrangements were made for a story about Seraphim in the French pigeon magazine, Colombiculture, with Anya featured on the cover holding one of her prize Seraphim. The story was a hit, opening doors for articles on Seraphim in other European pigeon magazines and for Anya to speak about her experience at the Centennial National Show in Chambery in 2003 and in a European film about pigeons. The most memorable connection created by the article was with Gabriel Thomas of France, who fell in love with Seraphim and wrote Anya hoping to acquire some to help him recover from a personal life tragedy. It took two years to finally get birds into his hands in the Brussels airport and it was a big moment for both Anya and Gabriel. Through him Jean-Pierre Demuyter and Rene Dautel (a French judge) joined the Seraphim Project.
Contributions to the development and promotion of the Seraph breed were made by many others, including Terry Fick, Everet Uhls, Raul Delgado, George Simon, and Gottfried Ernst. Anya is indebted to all who advised and assisted along the way.
Today the Seraph Show Standard has been firmly established, with the newest edition announced in 2017. (See under Show Standard in the side bar on this site.) The color genetics have also been worked out to a finer degree with the discovery of “controller genes” and “gene switches” that have allowed for a better understanding of how pigment is turned off in Seraphim to create a pure white bird. Finally, new information from Professor Axel Sell in Germany has hinted at a possible historical ancestral connection of Seraphim to a rare color variety of Uzbek Tumblers called Tschinnies (See under Genetics in the side bar on this site).