The Slate Mutation - Some Background Information

by Ken Gray

The years l933-35 saw the announcements of the arrival of the various grey-coloured mutations. The late Cyril Rogers detailed them in his book The World of Budgerigars. Before passing on Cyril's copies of Budgerigar Bulletin, dating from 1927, to the Budgerigar Society, I read all the early reports of the mutations of what came to be known as the Recessive (English) Grey; the Dominant (Australian) Grey; the other English mutation, a sex-linked one called the Slate; and a Grey bred by Karl Feyh of Chemnitz.

All four mutations seem to have occurred in the early 1930s. The original breeders, and in some cases, more experienced fanciers who were helping them, were all reporting their findings to Budgerigar Bulletin and corresponding between themselves and with Cyril Rogers, who was at that time General Secretary of the BS.

E A Brooks of Mitcham, Surrey, England, bred the first Recessive Greys and Mrs S Harrison of Murrumbeena, Victoria, Australia, the first Dominant Grey. Although a strain of German Greys was reported, nothing further was heard of it - probably due to the world-shattering events taking place in that country from 1933 onwards.

Actually the first mention of a "grey" mutation was made by F S Elliott, the editor, when he recorded in the Search 1935 Budgerigar Bulletin that R T Watson of Bedford, England, had in his possession a hen of a  slatey blue colour. The hen, in adult plumage, unringed, had been bought from a dealer in August 1933. Paired to a White Cobalt cock it raised two normally-coloured Cobalt young - a cock and a hen - before dying. Cyril obtained the skin of the "slatey blue  bird for his collection.

In May 1935 T Bowman of Carlisle, on the border between England and Scotland, bred a bird of unusual colour which he called a  Slate . In his opinion, the word being a good descriptive term for the colour, as it looked very much like that of the Welsh roofing slates used on so many buildings in the UK. The young bird, a hen, came from a Cobalt cock and a Skyblue hen. The following year he bred more Slates, including a Cock bred by pairing the original Cobalt cock to its Slate daughter.

Years later when the variety had become well-established and confirmed as a sex-linked one, Cyril Rogers compared the colour of the skin of the Watson bird with live specimens of what Cyril described as Slate Cobalts. The colours were identical. Cyril therefore believed that the hen purchased by R T Watson could have been the original Slate. The T S Bowman bird (which we would term a split Slate) could just possibly have been the Cobalt cock bred by Mr Watson, but there is no record of it being sold. It is recorded that the cock was bred to its own sister by R T Watson with no further birds of "slatey blue"colour being produced, so if it was sold to the breeder in Carlisle, it would have to he subsequent to that. Alternatively if the actual mutation had occurred some generations earlier, the Watson and Bowman birds could have had common ancestry.

In June 1936 the editor of the Budgerigar Bulletin devoted a number of pages to "The New Grey Varieties", at that time unnamed, except for T S Bowman's descriptive term "Slate"for his variety. What a pity that the English Recessive Grey and the German Grey seem not to have survived the Second World War.

For some years after the war, the Slate variety progressed satisfactorily, as they were being bred by a fair number of keen breeders in the UK. During the late sixties and into the seventies interest in the variety remained quite steady and the BS published a Standard for it, but there were signs that the Dominant (Australian) Grey was increasingly affecting the popularity of the Slate.

In the summer of 1970 Cyril Rogers had a visit from a young Dutch couple. They were very interested in his Slates, being the first they had seen. When they were due to return to Holland, Cyril gave them a pair suitable for breeding. After a few years their stock had increased quite well, but in 1974 the husband was killed in a road crash, and eventually the dead man's sister took over the breeding stock. When she married, she passed the only live Slate she had onto a friend, Inte Onsman, who lived near Amsterdam.

During this period up to 1990 the variety seems to have died out in the UK. I remember Cyril telling me that he was down to one cock which he hoped was split for the mutation. Frankly, I like colourful birds, so the variety had little real attraction for me except as a novelty. As usually happens when there are two similar varieties in existence, the one that is easier to improve in exhibition qualities - usually a Dominant mutation - prospers, while the other declines.

In early 1992, hearing that Slates were by then non-existent in the UK, Inte Onsman contacted Cyril at his home at Aldeburgh in Suffolk and offered him a couple of cocks. That offer was gratefully accepted; they were brought to the UK, went through a period of quarantine; and eventually reached Cyril on 11th July that year, the first Slates he had seen for about 20 years.

He paired one (1991-ringed), to a Light Green/Blue hen and the other (l990-ringed), to a Clearflight Cobalt hen that I had bred in my aviary at Clacton-on-Sea in the adjacent county, Essex. Cyril wrote in late 1992:

As soon as I hung up nest-boxes the Green hen went in one and stayed there, laying six eggs - all of which were clear. The Clearflight Cobalt, after laying her first egg from the perch, took over a nest-box and produced four more eggs. I was delighted when all four hatched and gave me a Slate cobalt hen, a Skyblue/Slate cock, then another Skyblue/Slate cock and then a Clearflight Slate Skyblue hen. I now have a small nucleus to get the Slate mutation established once more in this country. Being sex-linked it should not be too difficult to do this and I hope to make a start next breeding season with this object in mind.

Cyril was the Chairman of the Rare Variety and Colour BS in the UK, (one of the six Specialist societies all associated with the BS itself); and I was that year, the President. He did breed some more Slates and splits in 1993 from the one Slate cock and the Clearflight Cobalt hen from my aviary, naming a total for 1992 and 1993 of 11 young.

In June 1993, at the request of Cyril's daughter, and with his own approval (he being in hospital in Ipswich), I removed all his budgerigars to my aviary. As I knew that it was his dearest wish that Slates be seen on the show benches again, I entered two of his hens in his name - one 1992 in the appropriate Any Age class, and one 1993 in the appropriate Young Bird class at the Specialist and Rare Variety Show, held at Ryton near Coventry, later that month. He was delighted to hear of it and they attracted considerable attention. In July that year I paired the 1990-ringed cock from Holland, which had already fathered 11 young, to a Clearflight Opaline Skyblue still in my possession, a full sister and nestmate of his earlier partner. This pairing also proved successful.

In August of that same year, Cyril Rogers, the world-renowned walking encyclopędia on avian matters, died. I was asked to give the funeral oration at Alleburgh Church and to write an Obituary for various magazines.

I continued to try to persuade the second cock, the 1991-ringed one, to breed, but without success. I passed some of Cyril's Slates to four other members of the RV&CBS including Dr Margaret Young. She also tried to get the second cock to breed. Cyril, myself, and now Margaret, had all tried, but with no success. That means that all the known Slates in the UK are descended from the one cock, which I had in my possession until its death early last year (1996).

There are now Slates spread all around the UK - mostly with RV&CBS members, but some also with non-members. I am told that some have been exported, in fact I know it to be true in one case, as a caller to my aviary from Holland (strangely enough) took one back across the North Sea with him.

I keep a few breeding pairs of the variety, as I do of many other varieties, but I am having to reduce numbers all round. It is most difficult to decide which have to go, but it must be done.

Thanks initially to Inte Onsman and Cyril Rogers, I feel that all that can be done to re-establish the Slate variety has been done. It must now survive on its own popularity. We have to be realistic about this. We know it can never be really popular, but just hope that it does not decline to dangerous levels again.

That is the history of the mutation as I know it. Now some details of the actual variety. How does its appearance differ from, say, the Dominant (Australian) Grey?

As with the Grey and all other varieties, there are three depths of colour - no dark factor (the equivalent of Light Green or Skyblue); single Dark factor (equivalent of Dark Green or Cobalt); and double Dark (equivalent of Olive Green or Mauve). If you do not know, or cannot visualize, the colour of a Welsh slate, it is difficult to explain it. It is a softer, warmer, colour than the equivalent Dominant Grey. Perhaps the Slate Skyblue is the most attractive of the three shades. The Slate Mauve is quite dark and is difficult to recognize unless one Is familiar with the variety.

There can be a Slate version of all the colours in the Green and Blue series, including Yellowfaces and Goldenface Slate Blues of the three depths of colour, plus the whole range of Slate Violets including the Yellowface and Goldenface versions. It is obviously unwise to mix the Dominant Grey mutation with the Slates. Opaline, Cinnamon, etc. and all the dominant and recessive "markings" mutations can, of course, be combined with Slate, producing many differently-toned results.

Whereas the Dominant Grey mutation produces birds which have grey cheek patches, those of the Slate mutation are a dull deep violet. The long tail feathers of the Greys are known to be black; those of all varieties of Slate that I have seen are a dull dark blue. The wing markings of the true Slate, the Blue series bird from which the mutation originated, are a very clear-cut black on white.

There seems to be no reason why the Slate varieties should not attain the size, type and other exhibition qualities of the majority of budgerigar varieties - at least the same as the other sex-linked ones. Only time will indicate the answer. That seems to complete the story of the Slate as I know it. If there is sufficient demand I expect the Budgerigar Society in the UK will eventually re-introduce a Standard for the variety.