Subject: orioles/genetics
Date: May 04 08:00:00 1995
From: "Michelsen, Teresa" - TEMI461 at

I have to respond to something Burt said yesterday "we all have X and Y
chromosomes". We DON"T all have both chromosomes (unless by WE you mean
only males :-)). Male humans have XY and females have XX. In birds, as you
pointed out, males have WW and females have WZ. This single fact accounts
for ALL sex-related differences between males and females, either directly
or indirectly. If you think about it, no gene that is not on a
sex-chromosome can account for a M/F difference ALL BY ITSELF, since genes
on these chromosomes are passed on randomly to offspring, without regard to
sex. However, genes on these other chromosomes can be expressed differently
between M and F, as you stated. All this really means is that the trait can
only appear in the presence of some other enzyme or hormone. In the case of
a male/female trait, this is generally a sex hormone, whose production is in
turn regulated by other genes on the sex chromosomes. I looked up some
interesting traits (in my Van Nostrand scientific encyclopaedia; my
textbooks are all at work) and thought through some patterns as they apply
to birds, so those that are interested in plumage characteristics as
determined by genetics, read on - others may find it too long.

Essentially, there are three types of sex-related differences in humans:
Sex-Linked, Sex-Limited, and Sex-Influenced. The first two are most
applicable to bird plumages, so I'll stick to those (sex-influenced accounts
for male-pattern baldness and other traits that can appear in both males and
females but differ in the likelihood or severity of their expression because
of how they are affected by hormones).

Sex-Linked: Imagine that there is a tropical bird whose males are all blue
and whose females are all green. This could be accounted for a by a gene
located on the W and Z chromosomes as follows. The gene for plumage color
has two varieties: a recessive gene for blue plumage (I'll call "b") and a
dominant gene for green plumage (I'll call "G"). Now further imagine that
all W chromosomes have the "b" gene and all Z chromosomes have the "G" gene.
Thus males would have bb and females would have bG, resulting in a blue
color in males and a green color in females. I don;t know that that this is
really how it works in most cases, but it's one explanation. The difference
in eye color between male and female bushtits could also be something like

Sex-Limited: This is the case that could fit house finches (and according
to my reference, accounts for the male peacock plumage). In this case, all
house finches have a gene somewhere for "basic" plumage, the brown streaky
plumage that juveniles and females have. Both M and F birds have this when
they are born. Somewhere else there is another plumage gene that both M and
F birds also have, but which is only expressed in the presence of male
hormones. So at some point in the male bird's life (bird puberty, if you
will), genes on the W chromosomes get busy cranking out male hormones and
the red plumage shows up in males, while the females stay brown. This
second gene is further complicated by having both dominant and recessive
traits (the red and gold varieties). As you can see, many bird species fit
this pattern.

Furthermore, I think that plumage changes that occur during breeding season
can also be explained by a variation of this. In this case, it would be
seasonal increases in hormones that cause the secondary plumage genes to be
expressed, where the non-breeding plumage is the "base" plumage and the gene
for brighter plumage is triggered by the presence of hormones. In birds
where only the males change plumage, the gene is triggered by high levels of
male hormones. In birds such as grebes and cormorants, where both sexes
change plumage, it is the same process, but the gene for breeding plumage is
less selective, and is triggered by higher levels of either male or female

This is somewhat speculative, since I don't have genetic texts on birds
other than the short references described above. Anyone who does, please
let me know if these examples work, or if there are alternative
explanations. - Teresa Michelsen temi461 at