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The Origin of Budgerigars

Dear Bird Folks,

Many, many years ago, when I was a kid, I used to enjoy visiting my spinster aunt in Cincinnati because she had a pet parakeet or what some people call a “budgie.” I’ve always assumed these parakeets were descendants of wild birds, but I never knew where they came from. My question is: where are parakeets from and are they still found in the wild?

-Maura, Dayton, OH


Me too Maura,

My aunt also had a pet parakeet. Was your aunt’s bird named “Pretty Boy”? I think over the years my aunt had five different parakeets and each one, no matter what the sex, was named Pretty Boy. And strangely enough, the birds never seemed to mind. Now that I think about it, years ago everyone seemed to have a spinster aunt who had a parakeet. Back then parakeets, mothballs and plastic on the furniture, were required equipment for an aunt. Plastic on the furniture may be tacky, but it probably wasn’t a bad idea with Pretty Boy flying around the house. You are right in assuming that parakeets are descendants of wild birds. You would be surprised how many people never think of parakeets coming from the wild. To some folks parakeets were created by Woolworth’s, to be sold along with the plastic bags of live goldfish, and turtles with designs painted on their shells.

Parakeets are parrots. Most small parrots, with pointed tails, are typically referred to as parakeets. When we talk about parakeets in the United States we are most often referring to a specific species of parrot called a Budgerigar. Budgerigars are known to the rest of the world as “budgies.” In 1840 budgies were imported to England from Australia. In exchange for the birds England sent Australia convicts. The English immediately fell in love with these friendly, cute, spirited little birds. The Brits rewarded the birds’ friendliness by capturing thousands more of them from the wild and imprisoned them in cages. Fortunately for the wild birds the budgie exporting craze didn’t last long, because it was soon discovered that budgies would easily breed in captivity. Captive breeding provided millions of birds for Woolworth’s and spinster aunts all over the world.

Wild budgies have green bodies, checkered backs and a yellow face. Evidently that look wasn’t good enough for the breeders because they soon went about trying to improve on nature. Over the years many flavors of budgies have been produced including gray, blue, yellow, violet and tons of colors in between. Once even bright red budgies were imported from breeders in India. The British couldn’t figure out how the Indians were able to breed red birds, until the red birds began to molt. It turns out the Indian birds weren’t red at all, but had simply spent the afternoon at the hairdresser. Yes, it was a dye job. Once the molt began and the birds weren’t able to touch up their roots the jig was up.

The wild Budgerigars are native to the grasslands of Australia, where they fly in large flocks. The name Budgerigar comes from an Aborigine word meaning “good meal.” When the Aborigines came upon a tree filled with roosting budgies, they would snag a few and roast them on the evening’s fire. One of the the earliest known Aussie fast foods was fresh budgie on a stick.

Most North American songbirds breed in the spring, but budgies don’t follow the seasons like our birds. They breed based upon food supply. Much of Australia’s interior is dry and whenever rain does arrive it produces wild grasses and other seed producing plants that budgies love. At the first sign of rain the birds stop what they are doing and shift into breeding mode. Typically birds don’t set on their eggs until all the eggs are laid. They do this in order for all the eggs to hatch at once so the young birds grow and fledge at the same time. Budgies on the other hand never have a reliable food supply. They can’t afford to waste time. They start incubating as soon as the first egg is laid. The baby birds that hatch-out first are fed first, while the later hatching birds have to wait for whatever food is left. This way at least a few offspring survive if the food source dries up. It’s a cruel but necessary method for raising young. Perhaps, this may explain why, when I was growing up, I was always much thinner than my older sister.

I’ve never been a fan of keeping birds in cages, Maura, but domestic budgies are sometimes the only companionship many people have. I guess there just aren’t enough personal ads looking for someone who enjoys quiet dinners, long walks on the beach, mothballs and plastic on the furniture.