The Significance of Feather

My article has two major objectives. Firstly to give a brief historical outline of the development of the Budgerigar in the UK from 1840 to the present day, with particular reference to the rle played by feather mutations. Secondly to give some guidance to beginners and novices as to how they utilize feather in their quest for breeding top class birds.

Enormous Progress Has Been Made

Slides of lithographs, drawings and photographs of wild or pet-type birds and today’s top-class birds, clearly illustrate the enormous progress made in the development of the Budgerigar particularly in the last fifty years. A major factor, of course, has been selective breeding on the part of skilled fanciers for many years. However, it has been two feather mutations which have had an equally important effect in the process. Anyone who doubts the significance of feather need only examine the feathers of non-exhibition birds, with those of exhibition stock. Even if one compares the winning birds of 10-15 years ago with today’s winning birds, the differences are quite outstanding. The birds of that time would not come near winning in 1995.

Let us step back to those very early days. Prior to 1925 when The Budgerigar Society was formed, the Budgerigar was shown in pairs as a foreign exhibit. At that time, men such as Dr Armour and Bill Watmough laid great emphasis on colour and shape. Harry Bryan even then, laid more stress on the shape and power of the bird. The early advances were because of these early pioneers and others like them. The birds had protruding eyes, a protruding beak and small spots.

Feather Structure

To understand the changes that have taken place, we must first understand the structure of the feathers which comprise our Budgerigars. Most people are familiar with the various colour mutations which have taken place over the years, since the blue and yellow first arrived in the 1940s, but fewer are aware of the mutations which have affected the nature and structure of the feather itself. A feather is made up of three main elements:

Structure of the Feathers


  1. the rachis (or shaft)
  2. the barbs
  3. the barbules

Barbs and barbules

The barbules cannot be seen with the naked eye. Changes in the thickness and length of these components create an overall change in the feather itself. Thus a thickening of the rachis, barbs and barbules created the coarse or buff feather in the late-1940s, whilst a lengthening of the rachis created the longer feathers shortly afterwards. As a result, the short fine feathers of the original or wild Budgerigar have been replaced by a thicker, wider and longer feather in many of today’s birds. Consequently the Budgerigar has a completely different shape and size. Instead of a lean banana shape we now have a powerful bulky carrot shape. Above all, has been the change to the facial features: a deep mask, high frontal rise and facial width coupled with a tucked in beak and well hidden eyes are all the result of these mutations plus, of course, selective breeding.

Buffs and Yellows

These terms are often used to describe the coarse- and fine-feathered birds. Personally I don’t subscribe to these terms, which are more correctly associated with colour. The reason we have been stuck with these descriptions is, I believe, because we picked them up from the Canary fancy. Canary people like the type of bird with a dense yellow colour. They found that the colour became buff as the feathers became coarser. They became known as buff feathers. When the buff birds or coarser-feathered birds appeared in the late-1940’s, Harry Bryan and others started to use them to improve the quality of the exhibition Budgerigar.

If they could acquire a coarse-feathered cock and hen, they paired them together. As we all know nowadays, this is a short cut to infertility. They learned the hard way as they encountered fertility problems. It wasn’t long before they decided the hen should be fine feathered.


The first real significant change in feather was seized upon quite by chance. Ken Farmer was invited by a fellow fancier to help him sort his birds out as he was selling up. When Ken arrived he was astounded to discover Budgerigars the like of which he had never seen. They had longer flights, longer tails, super masks and super heads. Not surprisingly, he bought the lot. It was not long before Harry Bryan and others were getting into these longflights. Then of course they started to win at shows. In 1982, Harry Bryan remarked to me, “I would give my right arm for one of those birds now”. He maintained that having longflights in the past had helped make him the fancier he was.

It is perhaps a little surprising that they should be winning, as some of the leading figures of the time such as Dr Armour and W Watmough were opposed to that type of bird. The tails sagged down touching the bottom of the show cage. The extra long wings changed the appearance also. However, the head and mask quality overcame these disadvantages. I consider that the deep mask birds of today are the relic of the Longflighted birds.

A further feature in top class birds has been the recent development of “directional feathering”. This occurs when feathers adjacent to the cere extend horizontally backwards to form a browiness above the eye. The feathers are actually at right-angles to the cere. Directional feathering is a great advantage for a show bird, as it catches the judge’s eye. Compare this with poorer-quality birds where the eyes stand out in a manner unacceptable nowadays. Often the directional feathering is the only difference between two birds. Taken away from many birds they simply would not win. It can be a problem sometimes as the feathers can almost grow into the birds eyes and need to be trimmed to prevent irritation. One of the best examples of this type of bird in recent years was Eric and Michael Lane’s Opaline Grey Green cock.

The Mannes Factor

Comparison - Top Jo Mannes, centre and bottom&nbs;UKIn the last few years a further development in feather structure has occurred in the aviary of Joe Mannes in Germany. Whether this is a new mutation or simply a modification is a matter of debate, but feathers extracted from some Mannes birds have revealed feathers every bit as wide and long, if not longer, than those from UK birds but the rachis, barbs and barbules are much finer. This was revealed by Les Lockey, who used the latest photographic equipment at Manchester University to produce amazing photographs to prove the point. It will be fascinating to watch developments in this situation, with regard to its effects in the UK, and in the spheres of fertility and feather problems. Another characteristic of the Mannes’ feathers was that the colour on the feather extends further down into the root of the feather.

Using Feather in Your Pairings

In addition to the coarse- and fine-feathered birds described earlier, it is now accepted that a third feather type exists. The intermediate feather is exactly as its name suggests halfway between the two other feather types. The aim of this article is to make you think about your birds’ shortcomings or good points where feather is concerned. Having done this you must then decide what to do about it. You have several alternatives.


Fine-feather to fine-feather
A recipe for disaster in my opinion. A short-cut back to the old days. 

Coarse-feather to Coarse-feather
Disadvantages are that they are not very virile, prone to disease and don’t live as long on average. 

Intermediate-feather to Intermediate-feather
This would be my choice, but in order to have this type of feather you need the other two types.

Of course any other combination of the three can be used. You must study your feather, assess what is required and put in fine, or coarse-feather as required.


Buff feather-length differs Coarse, fine and intermediate Long feathers - deeper masks

Beware the Dominant Factor

Firstly, this is nothing to do with Pieds. Take a cock you feel is your most outstanding cock but lacking spot. You need to choose a hen with very good spots to balance the pairing. A great danger is that the hen you choose is a dominant bird. These are very rare, but this hen with the deep mask and big round spots would pass this onto the young, along with her faults. Of course the dominant factor can work in your favour with a particular bird who reproduces young, all of which are as good or better than itself. Unfortuately, there is nothing which can warn you if a bird is carrying this trait.

Feather Problems and Diseases

These have been considered in greater depth by others but the following points are worthy of note:


  1. Bacteria and viruses have a higher success rate where livestock is kept in unclean and unhygienic conditions. Thus it is vital to provide Budgerigars with a clean environment and sound diet. 
  2. Nest boxes, especially, offer ideal conditions for the development and spread of diseases. Accordingly they should be cleaned or replaced during the breeding season. 
  3. Modern societies, despite all the expenditure on research and development of drugs, are still plagued by a wide range of diseases. In contrast, very little is spent on Budgerigar diseases and such things as French Moult, feather dusters etc., appear to be something we have to live with. 
  4. Conversely, if it is felt that feather problems are genetic in nature, should we stop using lines which produce lumps or tail-less wonders, where there are common failings? 
  5. Feather problems such as split masks, spot shape, poor stance or lying across the perch are, on the other hand, problems which the fancier can overcome by careful selection of breeding pairs.

Water and Feathers

The effect on feathers by spraying during the show season revealed two reactions. Firstly, feathers, just like human hair, show a favourable reaction to water. Cleansing and wetting the feathers appears to enhance the quality of the feathers. Secondly, the birds react by preening themselves, which means the rachis, barbs and barbules are all returned to their proper positions and coated with feather oil in the process. Little and often, appears to be a safer method than heavy doses of water, because of the danger of pneumonia, which often occurs when saturated down feathers fail to dry out prior to roosting.

Original text: Copyright 1995 Bernard Kellatt

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