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Questions and Answers About
DNA Sexing From Feathers


Billions of dollars are spent on biotechnological research each year. Although most people now believe that we have just scratched the surface of what biotechnology has to offer, we are beginning to understand its enormous potential. The possibility of preventing or treating diseases that many believed would remain untreatable is extremely exciting. Diseases that affect millions of people such as cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson, arthritis, diabetes, and depression, may one day be a thing of the past. Work is also being done to better understand the aging process, to treat paralysis, and to identify and treat genetic disorders during embryonic development before they become manifest. Still other possibilities of biotechnology include establishing methods to synthetically create body parts such as skin, bone, cartilage, even complex organs specifically designed for each individual.

These are just some of the solutions that biotechnological advances will one day have to offer. It is no longer a question of whether these advances will be become a reality, but rather when. However, these benefits are still in their initial stages of development and will require a great deal of time and resources before they may be implemented.

Biotechnological advances are also affecting the avian community in many ways. Genetic testing to determine sex, disease identification, and DNA profiling are some examples of how biotechnology is used by Avian enthusiasts all around the world. These techniques are also continually being improved and expanded. A decade ago DNA sexing procedures required a large sample of blood and several weeks to perform. Now samples can be as small as a single feather or drop of blood, and assays can be completed in as little as 24 hours without affecting the reliability of the test. The following is a brief explanation of DNA sex determination from feathers.


Why do we Use DNA from feathers ?

DNA sexing from feathers was established as an alternative method of sample collection. Customers from around the world wanted a simpler way to collect samples for DNA sex determination of birds ranging from ostriches to hummingbirds, penguins to macaws. Avian Biotech began working on a method in 1994 that allowed customers to pluck a few small feathers from their bird's chest or wing for analysis. This procedure helped to reduce stress, eliminate unnecessary bleeding, and minimize the chance of infection without compromising the accuracy and reliability of the results.


What is feather sexing?

Feather sexing could - and should - actually be referred to as tissue sexing. The reason small freshly-plucked feathers are used is because it is a very effective way of collecting the proper amount of tissue cells needed to perform the analysis. Cells are collected from the calimus, the portion of the shaft imbedded underneath the skin. Each tissue cell contains a nucleus from which a small amount of Genomic DNA can be extracted. This DNA contains the entire blueprint of the bird, including its sex. Generally, the proper amount of cells needed to successfully analyze a sample can be collected from as little as 3-5 freshly plucked chest or breast feathers. This may vary depending on the species of bird and size of the feathers.


What is the difference between Blood and Feather sexing?

Feather sexing and blood sexing are in most ways identical. Both procedures
require small amounts of template DNA (DNA isolated from each sample). Both use an assay procedure known as PCR. Both, in many cases, require the use of enzymes to break down the final PCR product before it is run through an electroforitic gel. Finally, both are analyzed using photographs and computer scans, and the final results are identical.

Experience and know-how are vital when performing any of these assays, as well as when determining the final outcome. For example, an identical PCR assay can be performed by several different individuals or labs with varying levels of success. Some would then say that the assay is not reliable, while others might argue that it's not the assay that should be in question, but rather the individuals doing the testing.


Is feather sexing as accurate as blood sexing?

YES, using our protocols we have not been able to detect any difference in the accuracy rates of blood and feather sexing. The accuracy rate of surgical sexing varies greatly depending upon the skill of the individual performing the procedure. When surgical sexing is performed by an experienced veterinarian the accuracy rate can be similar to that of blood or feather sexing done at Avian Biotech.


Are all lab results comparable?

One aspect that must be considered when comparing results from different labs is that any assay, test or procedure is only as reliable as the person or lab performing that procedure. For example, there are many professional golfers, but not all golfers perform at the same consistent level that Tiger Woods has for the last two years. The same can be said for veterinarians performing surgical sexing, technicians testing blood or tissue samples, even the performance of labs as a whole.

When comparing the accuracy and reliability of different labs it is important to realize that even though their services may be similar, you may not be comparing apples to apples. Be sure to ask questions and learn as much as possible about the individual procedures and the persons performing those procedures. Some questions you may want to consider asking are: What methods of analysis are being used? What type of quality control system has been implemented? How long have the individuals been specifically involved with this kind of work? How much experience do the employees have?


What are the limits?

Like everything else in this world, every assay has its limits. Our feather sexing procedures are designed to be used on small freshly-plucked chest or breast feathers, and not molted feathers, tail feathers or wing feathers. There are several reasons why plucked feathers are required for sex identification. The first is that the amount of quality Genomic DNA required can only be isolated from freshly-plucked feathers. Molted feathers do not contain adequate amounts of DNA to run our standard protocol; thus they generally give us no result. In order to attempt to obtain a result using molted feathers, we have to increase the sensitivity level of the assay using Nested Primer PCR. The increase in sensitivity could influence the final result by allowing the assay to become more susceptible to contamination, which decreases the overall accuracy of the assay.

Another drawback of using feathers instead of blood is that, at this point in time, DNA sexing and PBFD testing are the only assays we can run from a feather sample. DNA fingerprinting and most disease testing cannot be performed using feathers.


Can Feather Sexing Harm My Bird?

We believe that if the feathers are plucked correctly from the chest or breast area of the bird, the bird suffers little from this procedure. Chances of infection or contamination are almost nonexistent when done as directed. One person can safely collect each sample on their own.



Today there are many different ways to determine the sex of your birds. It is important to learn as much as you can and make your own decisions based on the information you have gathered. When choosing surgical sexing contact an experienced avian veterinarian and make sure you understand the risks and limitations of surgical sexing. When choosing DNA sexing lab ask questions about their methodologies and lab practices. Also make sure that you follow the sample collection instructions carefully. Accurate testing results from any lab begin with the sample collection.

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Avian Biotech International
1336 Timberlane Road    Tallahassee, FL 32312-1766
850-386-1145 or 800-514-9672 (Office)  850-386-1146 (Fax)

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