Essential Colour Genetics
A Brief Explanation of the Colour Genes Found in Marsh Daisy Fowl
By Nick Bohemia
The Marsh Daisy Group’s website has some very useful historic articles on the breed written by Charlie Peck in the Feathered World Yearbooks from the late 1920s onwards. The most interesting aspect of these articles is that they reveal a great deal of understanding in how the genes found in the Marsh Daisy breed worked together to create the standardised varieties, despite the limited knowledge in genetics at that time.
Today we have the benefit of decades of research and we are now able to identify and better understand how these genes work. Working with genetics isn’t new, the difference is that today we can better explain in more scientific terms what our predecessors have been doing for centuries.
If you only learn one thing about chicken genetics it should be those five genes that form the foundation of every variety. These are often referred to as the ‘Core genes’ and are:
E – EXTENSION OF BLACK– Which creates a predominantly black bird as in the Black Marsh Daisy.
eWh – WHEATEN/ EXTENDED RED– females develop a salmon pink shade on their backs and a deeper red in their hackles and pale breasts and underparts. Males look very like a ‘wild-type’ (as in Red Jungle Fowl and Black-red Game) but often with paler under colour.
Both the Wheaten and the Buff Marsh Daisy varieties are based on this core gene.
e+ -WILD TYPE or BLACK RED (Red Jungle Fowl)
The ‘natural’ colour of the fowl, as seen in Red Jungle fowl. The Brown Marsh Daisy is based on this core gene.
c -RECESSIVE WHITE
A white bird carries two copies of the ‘Recessive White’ gene that essentially turns-off the production of colour/pigment, preventing its true colour from developing in the feathers.
eb– EXTENSION OF BROWN – Similar to the above but removes the salmon breast in females.
This gene isn’t believed to be responsible for the colour and pattern in any of the standardised varieties.
ER - RESTRICTED BLACK/ BIRCHEN, e.g. Norfolk Grey, Silver Sussex. This core gene isn’t found in any of the standardised varieties.
Every bird inherits one of these core genes from its mother and one from its father and in all cases a ‘pure’ example will have inherited the same gene from both parents. For example, the Brown Marsh Daisy will have a pair of ‘e+’ core genes, the Wheaten a pair of ‘eWh’ genes and the Black Marsh Daisy a pair of ‘E’ core genes.
As you can see, only three of these genes are found in the Marsh Daisy breed and only the Wheaten and Buff varieties share the same core genes. This is a very important point, as it means that most of the varieties are based on different core genes and if this foundation isn’t correct then you will find it challenging to breed correctly coloured birds.
THE BROWN AND THE WHEATEN
As you can see from the above, the males with ‘eWh’and ‘e+‘core genes look very similar and it is difficult to determine their core gene based on their appearance alone. Now of course you’re probably thinking a Wheaten Marsh Daisy male looks nothing like a Brown male which is true. Whilst a basic wheaten male has a black breast, in the Wheaten Marsh Daisy a secondary gene, known as the Dark Brown or Ginger gene is found this variety which removes black pigment from the body, only leaving black in the tail.
Perhaps the greatest challenge Marsh Daisy breeders face relates to the two most popular varieties, the Brown and the Wheaten. Not all Wheaten birds carry the Ginger gene and from time to time may produce a few black-breasted male offspring. Although these cockerels look like Brown males, as mentioned above they are pure wheaten, i.e. they carry a pair of ‘eWh’ genes, unlike a pure Brown male which should carry a pair of ‘e+’ genes.
As you might imagine, it’s very easy to confuse these black-breasted wheaten males with brown males which both look the same , but are genetically very different. It’s in Marsh Daisy pullets and hens that we most often see how frequently this has caused confusion. When a black-breasted Wheaten Marsh Daisy cock is mated to Brown Marsh Daisy hens the result is offspring with ‘split’ core genes consisting of one ‘eWh’ and one ‘e+’ gene. In appearance the male offspring will look like a Brown just like their father, giving the false impression that this has been a correct mating. In contrast their sisters will show the presence of both of these genes. For example, they may look like Browns but with very pale breasts and a light edge to their body feathers, or like Wheatens with black peppering/stippling on the feathers on their backs.
Whilst these birds are from pure Marsh Daisy parents, their core colour genes are impure which means they are unreliable in relation to the offspring they can produce. To emphasise this point, these ‘split birds’ have the potential to produce up to six possible variations; pure Browns. pure Browns plus Ginger gene, pure Wheaten, pure Wheaten plus Ginger gene, split Brown/Wheaten or split Brown/Wheaten plus Ginger gene.
Some of these can be accurately identified by appearance, whilst the others can’t, but out of the six possible outcomes, only two, the ‘Pure Brown’ and ‘Pure Wheaten plus Ginger’ would qualify as genetically correctly Marsh Daisys in relation to colour.
Brown Marsh Daisy’s should be one of the most straightforward varieties to get right in terms of colour but it’s important to keep the Wheaten and Ginger genes out of your flock of Browns.
Wheaten are more challenging due to the addition of the Ginger gene. If correct Wheaten males are used year after year the black in the tail can start to fade to bronze in the males and the hens can become increasingly red and lose their white-wheaten breast colour.
This is where the black-breasted wheaten males can be useful as in just one generation these males can correct these faults in both the cockerels and pullets. If using a black-breasted Wheaten male in this way you must be sure that he is out of two pure Wheaten parents and not a Brown or Brown/Wheaten split or the results could get confusing and uncertain.
Six Wheaten Marsh Daisy cockerels (plus a Dorking) all siblings and hatched from a pair of ‘pure’ wheaten parents. All are pure wheaten but the bird far right lacks the ‘Ginger’ gene and the bird next to him carries diluting genes.
As previously mentioned, the Buff Marsh Daisy has the same pair of ‘eWh’ core genes and same Ginger gene as the Wheaten variety. However, in this case the diluting effect the Ginger gene has on the male’s tail and its reddening effect on the breast and body of the hen, whilst undesirable in the wheaten variety, is beneficial in the buff variety where a more even colour all over is preferable. This variety also carries two additional genes, the ‘Dilute’ and the ‘Champagne Blonde’ which turn the enhanced red pigment created by the Ginger gene into a soft buff brown.
A Black variety is created by the Extension of Black Gene, that creates black pigment over the entire plumage. This isn’t however always perfect and other colours can leak out, especially in the males that can develop gold or white stripes in their neck and saddle hackles.
Repeated selection of the blackest birds is the solution and it’s often advisable to wait until a cock is 2 years old before breeding, as these non-black feathers don’t always show until the second year.
Unlike the other varieties, the White Marsh Daisy is not created by its core genes. A white bird can be black, brown, wheaten, buff or any colour at its genetic core. A white fowl carries two copies of the ‘Recessive White’ gene that essentially turns-off the production of colour/pigment, preventing its true colour from developing in the feathers.
Just like Polar Bears, the white colour is produced by the complete absence of pigment.
As with the Black variety, the effects of the recessive white gene is not perfect and small amounts of faint colour can leak into the predominantly white feathers.
Again, by selecting only the purest white birds you increase your chances of pure white offspring.
To create Green legs, the living cells of the inner dermal layer must be pigmented black and the protective epidermal layer requires a yellow pigment. When combined they create a green pigment. This can be challenging in Black birds as the Black Extension gene can stain the outer epidermal layer.
White birds can often carry the genes that remove pigment from either the dermal layer (yellow legs) or the epidermal layer (slate legs) or both creating white legs. These faults in leg colour can be corrected by ensuring your breeding birds have green legs or show the dermal or epidermal layer colour that its mate is lacking.
Below are some quotes Charlie Peck extracted from the Feathered World Year Books demonstrating how our understanding of the Marsh Daisy varieties hasn’t really changed very much in the last century, just the way in which we interpret and explain how the genes work.
“The Brown male is very much like the OEG black-red male in plumage.”
“The female is really a Partridge and we specify the ticking and barring on the back, with gold-with-black striped neck hackle and salmon-coloured breast and underbody parts.”
(Feathered World Year Book 1928.)
Regarding the repeated use of wheaten-coloured males –
He wrote about the males:
“We get males that resemble the Brown from a wheaten mating and many that have black feathers spangled in the breast.”
“We do get our standard wheaten males, however by using such males year after year we get a tendency to lose the black tail with its beetle-green sheen and a bronze colour takes the place of the black.”
And about the females:
“Again, our females tend to lose the white wheaten colour of the breast and under-body parts and the back gets too solid a red wheaten colour. The whole of these undesirable tendencies may be checked, however, in one season by mating up a male with a black breast, provided this male is wheaten-bred.”
( Feathered World Year Book 1929)