Don Burke talks to Nigel Tonkin about his passion for Budgerigars

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Don Burke

Donald “Don” Burke OAM (Don was awarded an Order of Australia (OAM) in 2007 for services to the Environment) is an Australian television horticulturist and author. He is best known as the long time host of Burke’s Backyard, a prime time lifestyle program which ran for 17 years from 1987 to late 2004. It has returned several times over recent years with a number of Burke’s Backyard Specials.  Burkes Backyard also ran on BBC2 in the UK and in Europe as well as on cable in the USA. Don is patron of the Clearwing Budgerigar Society of Australia and President of the Miniature Budgerigar Society of Australasia.

For our international readers Don, please give and overview of yourself, your drive, your successes, your failures and what got you into the television business?

My gift and curse is that I care about people, animals and the environment – I am passionate about moving forward and making things better.  I went into television to try to make Australia a greener and happier country.  I often fail, but never give up.

Perhaps my best achievement was in instigating the national body that regulates all Agricultural, Veterinary and Horticultural chemicals in Australia(the APVMA) and serving on the board for the first five years. During this period we managed to remove many toxic chemicals from Australia such as the DDT family: Chlordane, Dieldrin, Heptachlor and others. These are the best days of my life.

Why budgerigars?

I began breeding budgerigars at the age of 7 and became totally hooked on them. They are beautiful little acrobats with a very very high IQ and stunning athletic abilities. They breed in the tens of millions in good years in the wild, but die in the millions during our cruel droughts. Providing them with a stable, happy and healthy life is a real privilege. Budgies have carried me along their happy road for much of my life.

You are challenged by the fact that not much new research is happening relating to the genetics of the budgerigar – please explain more.

The early days of breeding and exhibiting budgerigars were a triumph of gentle people breeding exquisite little birds guided by ultra-modern genetics.  Much of the gentility has gone now and money has come in.  Trophies and high prices dominate our budgie world, making it very difficult for ordinary people, pensioners and children to compete.  Kids don’t seem to matter much anymore, but elite breeders and judges do matter.

Despite the huge advances in the science of genetics, in my view the budgie world has not advanced itself much in recent times.  One hundred years of breeding for ever bigger birds, bigger heads, longer masks, longer directional feather and longer feather all over has left our birds barely able to fly and prone to infertility and early death.  We urgently need to use modern science to save our precious little birds.  Perhaps the miniature show budgie is the best way out.  These are called Colour Budgerigars inEurope.

New Mutations

New mutations are something that appears to drive you, why and what mutations are present that you have researched?

New mutations and old rare mutations need help and protection.  As a child and as a teenager I bred crested budgies in Australia.  Despite the fact that they were high quality exhibition birds, mainstream budgie breeders didn’t want them.  So when I got married and didn’t have the money to continue breeding budgies, no-one wanted the cresteds and they died out in Australia.  It was about 25 years before cresteds were re-established in Australia by importing some from the UK.

Mutations are fragile and easily snuffed out.  The budgie clubs need people like myself and Nigel Tonkin who establish new varieties or keep old varieties going.

I am researching the new Seafoams (aka White Caps) with Nigel, plus I am working on Darkwings (which are an Australian clearbody mutation from the 1930s), Electric Blues (which are sky blues with violet or mauve sparks on the body feathers), Heritage Australian Clearwings, Blackeyed Whites and others.  I have done genetic research on directional feathering, long flights and tails, clarity of wing colour in Clearwings, Crested budgies, Half-siders (mosaics) and ultraviolet pigments in budgies.  I also did the first research into Vitamin D3 and its crucial role in the budgerigar’s immune system.  Recently I have done work on the role of Gene regulators (volume controls) in exhibition qualities in the budgerigar.

Ultra Violet Pigments

Can you expand more on the ultra violet pigments in budgerigars for those that have not had access to your papers on this research?

Wild budgies all have UV pigment: it is confined to the forehead and two narrow stripes on the mask parallel to and abutting the cheek patches. In my research I set out to discover if all domestic budgies also have UV pigment. It turned out that all blue series budgies have no UV pigment whatsoever, hence my theory that UV pigment is part of the yellow pigment group which also includes orange and red. Goldenfaces (aka Australian Yellowfaces) have exactly the same UV distribution as wild light greens. However, English Yellowfaces are totally different. They appear to have NO YELLOW PIGMENT WHATSOEVER.  The cream-looking face appears to be all UV pigment, thus, it has far more UV pigment on the face than any other budgie. When I looked at dilute English Yellowfaces, it turned out that they had UV pigment almost all over the body! So English Yellowface is entirely a UV mutation- the world’s first. The new Australian Seafoam (aka Whitecap) is also a UV mutation and the (almost) white forehead is full of UV pigment.

My theory is that UV “landing strip” face markings in wild budgies helps parents and chicks find and feed each other in the dark nesting hollow.  I found that in a pitch dark room with a black UV Disco light on, the budgies had full vision while I could hardly see at all. Perhaps all night lights in bird rooms should have black UV tubes or globes.

The Secret To Directional Feathering

Directional Feathering is a much sought-after feature in today’s exhibition bird. Can you pass on the ‘secret’ to establishing and concreting this feature?

It disappointed me that no-one had done research into the inheritance of exhibition qualities of show budgies. So I spent some years trying to identify any measurable units of desirable characteristics. I didn’t dare to start with directional feather as I thought that it would be too hard. So I just recorded everything that I could see in my parent birds and their babies with the intention of cracking the code for a “simple” feature like length of mask. When I reviewed my breeding records, directional feather jumped out at me and screamed “I am a simple sex-linked gene”. That is, its transmission is identical to opaline or cinnamon. Thus, a cock with good directional feather is twice as important as a hen with it. Equally, a cock lacking directional feather, but bred from a bird with it can be split for directional feather. My article on this develops the story much more.

Many years ago, the long flighted bird of the UK was seen as the commencement of today’s exhibition budgerigar, the long flighted feature disappeared and the end result was good secondaries and wonderful wing carriage – I do note that the trend seems to be changing once again to birds with flight / secondary issues.  Would you agree with this comment and if so, what are the breeders doing today to re-create this not so desirable feature?

I do agree. I found the genetics of long flights to be very difficult to crack. I apologise for the pain that breeders may experience in trying to digest my awful theory, but here goes. The modern show bird’s feathers are made up of two basic genes; a more or less dominant gene for longer, coarser feathers and a recessive gene for disproportionally short flight and tail feathers (that cleans up the messy wings and tail created by the coarse feather gene). Hence the absurd situation that occurs when you mate a modern show bird with buff feathers and short flights to an old-fashioned bird with short feathers all over including short flights. The babies are all fairly coarse feathered birds with long flights! The take-home point is that you must select for birds with very coarse feathers but disproportionately short flights and tail. Short tail and flight feathers is recessive to proportionate length feathers; that is long head feathers accompany long flights. Read the article and you will get a better grip on the theory and there is a chart of expectations.

The early work on genetics done by others, dealt with the easy stuff to see; genes for blue colour or fallow or dilute or opaline etc. This was very good work, but it didn’t help you to win on the show bench. A bird doesn’t win just because it is a fallow or because it is blue. It wins because it is bigger or has a bigger head or clearer wings on a clearwing and so on.

It Was All Too Difficult

I guess that people didn’t try to sort out these exhibition aspects since it was all too difficult. For a start, these things don’t seem to occur in any observable pattern. Dirty wings on a clearwing are just dirty; the wings have greyish markings and that is that. What distinguishes my work is that I set about looking for tiny details, for the genetic minutiae of exhibition qualities. This turned out to be a very painful process. At first, I couldn’t see any identifiable differences between the various types of poor heads or dirty wings. So, I decided to break it down even further, to look at the various aspects of the head (e.g. directional feather) and the various make-ups of wing colour in clearwings; I decided to mine deeper and deeper into these issues. Some years passed and nothing much showed up. I plodded on.

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Clearwing Feather Patterns

The Eureka moment first occurred with clearwings. I was looking at some fairly dirty-winged birds, and all of a sudden, I noticed that there were two distinct types of wing patterns. One featured overall greyish wing feathers with a white crescent at the tip (type A), the other had an overall white wing feather with a fine greyish crescent-shaped marking near the tip (just under the white crescent at the tip (I named this type B). Bingo!  Once I went back over all of my birds and carefully classified all of them as either type A or B, the type A wing marking turned out to be a simple dominant over the type B.

From my outcrosses to normals I worked out that type A is the wild-type. It later emerged that all super-clear clearwings are type B birds. This mutation only affects wing colour and is the mutation that facilitated the excellent wing colour in Australian clearwings and blackeyed yellows and whites. It appears that the type B mutation is unique toAustralia, which explains why the rest of the world has never produced really clear wing colour on their clearwings. I also then discovered a dominant gene for intense body colour in clearwings and greywings which completed the genetic construction kit for the perfect clearwing.

Empowered by these breakthroughs (and driven by, I suspect obsessive-compulsive disorder) I tackled the minutiae of other exhibition aspects. It remains an agonising process. Further, since I seem to be alone in tackling this boring task, I am at great risk of making errors. Luckily, so far everyone just seems to be ignoring my work, which means that I am getting away with my mistakes.

yellowface_whitewing_cock_don_burke

This cock is the full brother to the hen pictured. He is also an English yellowface cobalt clearwing but he has type B wing pattern. His wing feathers are cream all over except for a grey crescent marking next to the cream crescent wing marking. Note that his wing markings are just as dark as his sister's; but the smaller amount of grey on the wing makes the wing colour appear lighter. This type of wing pattern is much easier to breed very clear wings from.

yellowface_whitewing_hen_don_burke

This hen is an English yellowface Cobalt clearwing with type A wing pattern. Notice that her wing feathers are fully grey with a cream crescent marking at the tip of each feather. It is very hard to breed really clear wing colour from this type of wing pattern.

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Gene Regulators In Exhibition Budgerigars

Could you expand on the Gene regulators in exhibition budgerigars and what did your findings show?

We used to believe that there were two types of genes: the big genes that created big effects (e.g. the blue gene or the cinnamon gene) and the little genes that, in large numbers, added little bits here and there – slightly more feather or slightly bigger size. These little genes are called modifier genes. This modifier gene theory has turned out to be largely incorrect. It turns out that the minor changes that differentiate the grand champion from the loser are due to volume controls that regulate the genes themselves. These volume controls create more or less blending inheritance and mutate up to 100,000 times faster than the genes themselves. Small increases in the length of head feathers or of mask feathers are achieved by simple selection for more and more – as I said blending inheritance. As you learn more and more about gene volume controls, you will get better and better at breeding winners.

What is the future of exhibition budgerigar breeding in your view?

Despite many of the points above, I am really excited and positive about the future of the show budgie. I am confident that the next 10 to 20 years will see a great refinement of our little living sculpture. We will rediscover Colour. We will re-establish the superb feathering and satin sheen of budgies in the past. Wing markings will be neat, precise and black and white (or yellow) in normals -No grey areas and No body colour suffusion in the wings. Good outline and posture will return. The ala spuria (bastard wing) will not hang down. The excessive feather bulk will go.

Overall we will refine and finesse the budgerigar. We will still have swank. We will still have big bold heads, BUT, excessive directional feather that impedes forward vision will go. Above all, we will see the return of athleticism, elegance and balance. We will finally have the complete budgerigar.

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About the Author: Nigel Tonkin is President of the Budgerigar Council of South Australia and has judged in the Australian Nationals, New Zealand, Switzerland & Germany. He is heavily involved in producing the new Australian Standard pictorial - working with Roy Aplin.

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  1. Amazing interview of Don Burke and outstanding analytical views.Wishing you all the best.

    Thank you very much Nigel Tonkin.

    Habib Ur Rehman,Pakistan

  2. harry gimbrere says:

    an exellent article by don burke, it makes me wonder if crested birds follow the same inheritance as the directional feathers? after all the crest is very directional too ?
    my comment seems abit silly, as I know that my cresteds are partly dominant,could they also be sexlinked recessive? I never tried that,any comment DON?

  3. Don Burke says:

    Hi Harry. I have published a modern article on cresteds. Maybe they will post it on this site. Basically, there are no crested budgies: they have whorls, much as you do on the back of your head. The genetics is nasty. I am considering publishing another article on the new genetic theory of it but no-one would probably read it! Better to go to the dentist – it would be more fun.

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