The Curse of Mops, Feather Dusters and Chrysanthemums
I suspect that all competitive budgie breeders produce Feather Dusters. One could reasonably state that the hidden “recessive” gene for feather dusters is present in all modern show budgie aviaries.
Why?....Breeders don’t want to produce feather dusters. It is embarrassing and represents a tragic loss from leading show strains.
Since breeders are uncomfortable with this issue, not much solid information exists on it. But there is a lot of misinformation around. So let’s look at bits and pieces of information.
Feather dusters occur when a baby budgie carries two genes for the gene responsible for the appearance. That is, the feather duster gene appears to be recessive to the gene for normal feathering. The homozygous feather dusters produce continuously growing feathers all over, eventually creating the appearance of a head of a mop or of a feather duster. This obscures eyesight, prevents the bird from flying, mating or even from defecating properly. Equally, the bird is unable to properly preen its feathers or to maintain bodily cleanliness. In general these poor birds hobble around on the floor of a cage. Obviously they are unable to mate with other budgies.
Other changes also occur. Commonly, the bird is much larger in body size and weight than its nest siblings. It can be between 50% heavier to double the weight of its siblings. It also has a deeper and different voice. Very rapidly after leaving the nest, feather dusters seem to adapt to a life of very little movement. They are simply unable to get around much.
In the past, it was always said that they were very short-lived: maybe no more than 4-6 months. With better care and feeding, however, they can live to one or two years of age, maybe even longer. It is thought that the huge demand that continuously growing long feathers all over causes the bird to die from exhaustion or starvation. Certainly better diet favours a longer life. Equally human care in washing feathers and cleaning vent obstructions is very helpful. Perhaps trimming feathers that obstruct the vent, eyes or feet is a good idea.
In the Nest
Encountering a feather duster in the nest is a roller coaster of raw emotions. As a nest of babies develops, one stands out as by far the best. Even before feathering properly the bird is very large with a big skull. As it feathers up, it looks better and better. The head feathering is superb and one starts to prepare one’s speech to the World Budgerigar Club when accepting the trophy for “World’s Best Budgie”.
Then tell tale lines or valleys in the head and neck feathers appear. The feathers line up in corrugations down the neck and you can see the head and neck skin through the valleys in the corrugations. Now you know that it is a feather duster. Now you know that you must hide this embarrassing failure from your mates. From ecstasy to agony in a few days …. Feather dusters? No mate, I never get them.
Why it Happens
After test matings from one lovely big bird that came from a feather duster line (yes, I do have them) mated to a small, runty bird that, so far as I know, had no feather duster producing antecedents, the pattern seems fairly clear.
This first cross produced twenty-two babies, but no feather dusters; a very fertile pairing. From the luxury of these twenty-two babies I selected pairings of large* bird to large bird, large to small and small to small.
When small was mated to small, 100% of the babies were small and I got no feather dusters. Small mated to large birds produced 50% small, 50% large and, again, no feather dusters.
When large bird was mated to large bird, the results approximated to 50% large birds, 25% small birds and 25% feather dusters. Thus, it is fairly clear that the large birds were “split” for the feather duster gene. When budgies carry one gene for feather duster, they are big, bold show birds. Thus the feather duster gene is not recessive at all, but incompletely dominant like spangle (or like the palomino gene in horses). That is, the single factor form is slightly larger overall and has more feather, the double factor form is a full-blown feather duster.
As further proof of the incomplete dominance, many breeders claim that the parents of feather dusters have deeper voices and a different call from normal budgies. That is, an altered voice box, much as true feather dusters do.
So What Should You Do
Ideally you should eradicate this gene. In horses and cattle, dysfunctional genes like this are being tested for and eliminated these days. For example, in Quarter horses huge muscles are very desirable. But one gene (called HYPP) gives you the huge muscles in the single factor form, but in the double factor form it produces a horse prone to muscle seizures and death. Now, by club law, all quarter horses in Australia must be tested and the single factor or double factor horses can’t be registered or bred from.
If you decide to cull them how would you do it? Obviously all parents of a feather duster are “carriers” of the gene. Any line of budgies where there are huge differences between the size and feather quality of the babies must be suspect as feather duster producers - particularly if the voice is deeper. Culling the various birds is then up to you.
*By large, I mean larger-looking, most of which was due to superbly dense feathering.
The Real Cause
The real cause of feather dusters is us. Whenever you select for extremes in show animals, there is a big chance that you will unknowingly select for a gene that gives you your desired result, but at an awful price. For example in miniature cattle, some are dominant dwarves. Dwarfism in cattle is semi- lethal (as it is in humans). That is, one dwarf gene produces a dwarf, two dwarf genes produces a grossly distorted baby that dies at birth (in dogs like dachshunds or Jack Russells this is not the case by the way). So selecting for VERY small cattle produces dead babies. Selecting for VERY muscled quarter horses produces disabled or dead horses.
Selecting for huge budgies with too much feathers produces feather dusters.
If the standard moved away from gross extremes in budgies, feather dusters would almost completely disappear. Equally, fertility would dramatically improve, as would lifespan. And flightless wonders would all but disappear. Due to overall health improvements, disease would be drastically reduced and hens would have dark brown ceres. Perhaps the biggest gains would be that the birds would be much easier to feed and breed, leading to beginners doing far better and staying with the clubs.
In many ways, the current standard imposes similar (genetic) cruelty as the binding of Chinese women’s feet did. Both are or were fashion extremes, but it is much easier to stop binding feet than it is to breed out a number of damaging genes.
My hope is that the new Mini Budgies will move away from the extremes and re-establish functionality over fashion extremes. God help us all.
Be very suspicious of any family of budgies where huge differences occur between the best and worst babies in the one nest. That is, some are big, bold and beautiful, others are miserable little runts. This is a fairly good indicator that at least one of the parents is carrying the feather duster gene.
A selection of Feather Dusters from around the World