by Steven Van Dyck ©

My brother had a pet Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) that finally went to the grave without ever causing us to suspect that Budgies had any redeeming features. It hated everybody, bit the fingers that changed its husks, and reserved all its energy and affection for its mirror, on which it lovingly regurgitated and pounded all day.

In its sunset years it took to having fits, where in the black of night, it would fall off its perch and flap around on its back screeching, until someone (my father) got out of bed, reinstated it on its perch, then attended his bleeding finger. Until the night my dad slept through the bird’s final fit, Bill, as the Budgie was imaginatively known, had managed to smoulder his way through about eight long years of unrequited love.

Native Budgerigar - Melopsittacus undulatus. Photograph by & courtesy of Mick Blake, Rockhampton Qld

Thinking the unsavoury relationship between Bill and the spotty mirror was just a by-product of boredom, we had no idea that Budgies craved company, and that to deny one a companion (and an appreciative audience) was like denying a politician the press. This was unwittingly demonstrated again a few years later when I tried my hand at breeding an isolated pair. The birds may as well have been hand-picked for a Vatican aviary, such was their seminarial disdain for Budgie business. Thirty years later I read that because they are naturally gregarious, it is usually quite hopeless to try to breed from single pairs of Budgies…the bells just don’t ring loudly enough for them unless they can draw on the inspiration generated by their copulating neighbours. Then, given some rain and seed, the whole flock plunges into a chattering frenzy of passion that would leave the herds of the Serengeti blushing.

Such a flurry of fecundity made December of 1989 an unforgettable Christmas for Ross and Yvonne Borlace of Ryreem, 50 kilometres north of Ceduna at the top of the Great Australian Bight. Budgerigars, which are widespread throughout mallee, mulga, saltbush and grasslands in the interior of Australia, are not commonly seen at Ryreem, and the Borlaces, who had childhood memories of some large flocks in the 1930s, could not believe what was going on up in the scrub north of their wheat and sheep farm. Over what seemed like only a few months, they had noticed a blistering build-up in the number of Budgerigars breeding everywhere in the mallee.

Then, toward Christmas, when the temperature rose to a staggering 46°C under the Borlace’s verandah, the simmering Budgie jamboree up in the mallee boiled over.

Those that didn’t die to form a thick, green carpet covering the floor of the scrub, moved down to the shade, moisture and reflective surfaces of the Borlace’s farm buildings. "We got home from town to find mobs of them, mostly young'ns, under the verandah, all over and under a car. The ones that weren’t dead paid no attention to us trying to pick our way through them to get to the front door", Ross told me. Daily, for two weeks, he raked dead Budgies out from grain stored in shaded holding sheds and carried them away in countless 20-litre drums.

"They were so desperate for moisture they just threw themselves into our 60 by 20 foot in-ground water tank. We put planks on the water to let them get out, but on at least two occasions the tank was completely covered with dead birds…you talk about deadly algal blooms up your way…". (Budgerigars are the only parrot known to land on water, drink while floating with wings outstretched, then fly up from the surface.)

Paul Brown and Allison Smythe, neighbours of the Borlaces, remember the Budgies clambering over greasy drums, trying to drink spilled oil, and others forcing their way into the children’s aviary to get at the pets’ drinking water.

"For weeks it really stunk right through the scrub, so thick were the bodies of the little green beggars."

There are numerous early reports of the sky turning almost black with flying Budgies. Ornithologist Alec Chisholm reported that after a heat wave in 1931, one resident of southern central Australia removed and burned almost five tonnes of dead birds from one of his dams. Another man recorded 60,000 dead Budgies that had smothered or drowned during their frenzied use of one of his waterholes.

In spite of such monumental local disasters, the Budgerigar is still probably one of the most abundant of Australian birds. Part of the secret of such success lies in its uncanny ability to follow rain and grain, and its lightning capacity to knuckle down to parenting at the drop of a shower-cap. If winter rains in the south, or summer monsoons in the north bring a flush of seeding grasses, the Budgies breed. But in times of drought they will nest after any substantial deluge. Each pair of Budgies selects a hollow in a living tree, dead stump or in a log on the ground. Inside, the brown-nosed female (her mate’s nose, or ‘cere’, is blue) may lay up to eight eggs over alternate days. She begins incubation almost immediately, so growth of the nestlings may be staggered by up to a fortnight. If the tables turn and poor conditions suddenly prevail, at least some of the more advanced chicks might survive, rather than the whole brood die. Both parents feed the young for about 35 days. They need only small, dry seeds (of grasses, saltbush, spinifex) to rear the chicks, and can raise several broods per year. On top of this, when water is very scarce a Budgie can survive up to 30 days without drinking.

The other part of its success story is behind bars. John Gould, who was fascinated by this tiny parrot, managed to take some hand-reared nestlings back to England in 1840, and these were purportedly the first Budgerigars to reach Europe alive. Bird lovers over there were enraptured with their miniature beauty. They were hardy and as easy to feed as they were to house and breed, and many became excellent mimics (although one author observed "Strangely enough, unlike human beings, male Budgerigars are far more talkative than females!"). During the next decade thousands more were shipped to Europe. But the little green birds bred so freely in captivity that by 1859 it was cheaper to buy a Budgie in London than to pay the ten shillings being asked in the Sydney markets. Yellow forms appeared in the Belgian markets in 1872, ‘Skyblues’ in 1910, and thereafter almost every imaginable colour except red. The brilliant scarlet individuals from India that appeared in London shortly before World War II were paled by the faces of their new owners who watched the birds’ (dyed) feathers fall out during the annual moult to reveal ho-hum white birds!

Today, although Canaries (originally from the Canary Islands), African Peach-faced Lovebirds and our own wolf-whistling Cockatiels try to steal the cage-bird limelight, the Budgerigar still ranks deservedly as the most popular caged bird of all time. Totally adaptable, all forgiving, non-demanding and ever ebullient, this little parrot brings uninhibited joie de vivre to millions around the world.

I sometimes wince at the memory of old finger-crunching, brain-damaged Bill skidding around the cage floor demolishing his coprolitic stalagmites, but the morning chatter of my children’s pet Budgie rising above their violin practice, and the inspiration he draws from his mirror where I now draw only desolation, is sweet testimony to why Budgerigars made it to the top of the ladder!

Further Reading

  • Crome, F. & Shields, J., 1992. "Budgerigar", p. 117-120 in Parrots and Pigeons of Australia. Collins, Angus & Robertson: Sydney.
  • Forshaw. J., 1994. "The Little Aussie Breeder: Budgerigars". Aust. Geo. 16(2): 116-124

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