One of our more successful exports, this Australian native has become the most popular cage bird in the world. For good reason. Budgerigars are social, gentle, affectionate, inquisitive, playful and just plain fun to be around. To go along with their cheerful whistling and chatter, you can teach them to talk. Plus, they come in a stunning array of colours.
Here are some of your choices: yellow, sky blue (to the right), laurel (dark blue), olive, cobalt, mauve, white, greywing (green and blue), clearwing (first bred in Sydney), fallow, Danish pied (sometimes called harlequins or recessive pieds), saddlebacks (also a Sydney breed), Australian dominant grey, violet, yellow-faced blue, Australian dominant pieds (Sydney again), Dutch dominant pieds, continental clearflights, cinnamon, lutino and albino (known collectively as ‘inos’), opaline, lacewing, spangle (Melbourne) and crested. And those are just recognised varieties. There are many, many more cross-mutations.
Origins – In the wild the native budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) comes in one basic colour combination: light green with a yellow head and undulating black bands along the back of the head and wings. For mutual protection they form large flocks – sometimes in the tens of thousands – over the dry, open plains of central Australia. When the time comes to nest, they move farther south to areas with good supplies of food and water. They’re pretty flexible when it comes to picking sites for their nests. Tree hollows, rotting wood, beneath rocks and even holes they dig in the ground are all refuges they will use, depending on circumstances and the whims of the couple involved.
To digress for a moment. It’s been widely reported that the name budgerigar comes from an Aboriginal word meaning “good food” or “good eating.” It makes you wonder whether all tasty bush tucker was called budgerigar as well. Or, since there are many Aboriginal peoples, each with its own language, whether at least one of the other names for these birds might translate: “pretty little bird that chatters a lot.” End of digression.
Fossil remains indicate that budgies have been in Australia for some four million years. The first recorded mention of these birds was made in the late 1700s by a colonist near Parramatta. It wasn’t until the mid-1850s that the first captive breeding took place…in Europe.
Picking out a budgie – If you have the choice, take a hand-raised baby that has already had the chance to become socialised with humans. You also want a lively, alert bird that is not easily frightened. And you should go for a youngster. Not only do they adapt more readily to new environments, they also tend to be easier to tame and train.
Recognising a young budgie (like the one to the right) is usually a piece of cake. Until they’re three to four months old, they have solid black eyes and barring (stripes) on the head down to the cere (the fleshy membrane around the nostrils), which, incidentally, will be a purplish colour. The exceptions are albinos and lutinos, which lack both the black eyes and stripes.
Because of the similarity in colouring between immature males and females, determining their sex is not a piece of cake. However, there are a couple of other indicators you can use for guidance. The males are the ones always warbling and bobbing and weaving and hopping about. Females are not nearly so demonstrative. And where the cocks will generally go out of their way to make friends with their cage mates, the hens have attitude. Female budgies are more aggressive and bite harder than males. So when in doubt about the sex of a young budgie, just proffer a finger tip.
Or you could wait. When budgies mature, the stripes recede up their foreheads and the eyes usually develop a light grey or white iris. The colour of the cere also changes. The male’s becomes rich blue while that of the female will be either pale blue, pinky blue or brown. When she’s breeding, it will turn a dark brown and might become rough and crusty.
Because these highly social birds relish the company of others, they’re best kept in pairs. If you only want one budgie, you should be prepared to become your pet’s close companion, providing plenty of TLC, regularly talking and playing with it. You shouldn’t be surprised if your budgie adopts you as a parent and takes to flying around behind you. One plus of not having the distraction of another bird: training is generally much easier.
Housing – Most of the cages sold for budgies in pet shops are too small. Your bird must be able fly between perches, especially if it doesn’t get much exercise time outside the cage. That’s why the cage should be longer rather than higher; a minimum size for a single budgie is 30 cm high x 60 cm wide x 30 cm deep. Because budgies, unlike most of us, like climbing the walls, at least two sides should have horizontal bars, something else that seems to have escaped the attention of cage designers and pet shop owners. You may find some cages with horizontal bars, but chances are they’ll also have more height than width, like the one pictured here. If you don’t have any choice, just make sure that the one you take is wide enough.
Find a place for the cage with good natural light but not direct sunlight. It should also be away from draughts and cooking fumes. Because a budgie should get from 12 to 14 hours of sleep daily, a quiet spot some distance from stereo speakers, TVs and/or radios is a good idea. And because birds feel safer being able to look down on things, putting the cage at eye level or higher will increase its comfort zone.
Locate the perches as far apart as possible to allow flying between them. Using native tree branches with different thickness will let your bird exercise its feet by changing its grip. Do not put sandpaper on the perches; it does far more harm than good. Newspaper or paper towelling on the floor of the cage makes for easy cleaning and checking of droppings.
While the addition of toys such as plastic rings, bells, swings and ladders are great for keeping your pet amused, this doesn’t mean you should put so many inside the cage that you inhibit the bird’s ability to move about. Instead, try putting a playpen outside the cage. It can be as fancy as the one shown here or far more basic. Either way, it will provide hours of exercise and fun. By the way, mirrors and plastic birds can be counter-productive when you’re training. Many birds will pay more attention to their ersatz companions than their instructors.
Diet – In their natural habitat, budgerigars are mostly vegetarians, feeding on grass seeds, eucalypt leaves, buds, bark and other greens. On occasion pet budgies can be given cooked chicken bones and boiled eggs to increase their protein intake. Because such foods tend to go off quickly, they should not be left in the cage any longer than a day.
Seed mix – While the combination of seeds you provide your pet should resemble the natural diet of its wild cousins, it should also take into account the larger frame and less active lifestyle of the domestic budgerigar. You’ll find an ample choice of commercially produced seed mixes at the pet shop or supermarket, but you can also mix your own. A basic recipe would call for 40% canary seed, 20% French millet, 20% panicum and 20% oats. Adding cod liver oil or wheatgerm oil will provide extra protein.
Note: Because budgies shell the seeds when they eat, what might appear to be a well-supplied food container actually could consist of nothing but empty shells (or husks). Needless to say, your not checking closely could soon result in one emaciated bird. Just blow or scape off the old food and shells first before replenishing. You should also make sure the container is kept clean; if left dirty it can quickly become a breeding ground for bacteria.
Balanced diet – You should add variety to your budgie’s menu with greens on a daily basis. Leaves from vegetables are good, as is grass, especially the growing stems or sprouting seeds. Even better are branches from trees; they provide both exercise in the form of chewing as well as nutrition from the leaves, bark and shoots that helps balance your budgie’s diet. Eucalyptus works a treat. (Make sure that whatever tree you offer is not poisonous.)
Common, everyday fruits and vegetables also play a beneficial role. Apples, grapes, strawberries, guava, mangos, oranges, pomegranates, watermelons, blanched or grated carrots and green leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach will provide a host of required vitamins and minerals. It may well take months of daily morsels before your budgie begins to eat the fruits or vegetables, but persevere. In time your bird will discover new taste sensations it absolutely loves. But don’t be surprised if it continues to turn up its beak up at others. About the only way you going to know which is which is by experimenting.
Dangerous foods – Avocado, rhubarb, chocolate and caffeine are all poisonous. Cabbage will make your budgie sick. Spinach and parsley bind to calcium, reducing its absorption from the gut; this is a real problem with laying birds who need all the calcium they can get. Beans, croton, eggplant, raw peanuts, apple seeds, raw potatoes and asparagus are also no-nos. Grocery store seed is generally of a poor quality and can lead to budgies dying inside 12 months from malnutrition. For years grit was considered necessary to aid in a budgie’s digestive process. Now we believe that grit is not only unnecessary, it may even do harm.
Diet supplements. Calcium, on the other hand, is required in a budgie’s diet, especially for nesting hens and developing young birds. You can add this mineral in the form of a calcium block or cuttlefish bone. Alternatively, you can save egg shells, dry and grind them into a powder to sprinkle over your bird’s food.
Birds also need vitamins, in particular the B group. You can buy vitamin preparations from pet suppliers in liquid or soluble forms, or as a powder to mix into the seed. Generally, budgies only need other vitamin and mineral supplements during the summer when they undergo their major annual moult.
Water. Although budgerigars in the wild can go without water for up to three weeks, depriving pet birds isn’t a great idea, especially in hot weather. For best results, make sure yours has fresh, clean water every day. If your bird manages to deposit droppings into the water container, change it; bacteria grow very rapidly. Some breeders add raspberry cordial to their birds’ water as a means of killing bacteria.
Baths – Most budgies love taking baths. Every day. As you can see from the photo, they can really get stuck into it. Just give your bird a shallow bowl, pan or plant saucer about 15-20 centimetres in diameter. The water shouldn’t be any deeper than two to three centimetres. Much more and your budgie could drown. Take care to keep the bowl clean because your bird very likely will drink from it. If you put the bath inside the cage, things are bound to get a little messy, so you might have to do a spot of cleaning afterwards.
Freedom – As we’ve suggested, budgies need daily exercise, especially when confined to under-sized cages. Aside from a large aviary, the only way for your pet to properly stretch its wings and fly around is for you to let it out of the cage. But before you do, there are some precautions to take. Since budgies who manage to take advantage of an open door or window rarely return, you have to make sure all escape routes are closed. Turn off ceiling fans or any other fan without an adequate guard. Poisonous plants, hot stove tops, open flames, cats and dogs all can prove fatal to a budgie. Mirrors, transparent glass windows or doors and drinking glasses or any containers with liquid are all potential hazards.
Training – As we mentioned above, if you have a young, hand-fed bird, about 12 to 14 weeks old, you should be able to train it quite quickly. If you have more than one bird, it’s best to train them one at a time. Don’t take this personally, but they will prefer the company of each other to you. For best results during this initial period, you might want to have your budgie’s wings trimmed to keep it from suddenly cutting class. To keep the student focused, conduct lessons in a small room with few distractions. To avoid confusion, limit the faculty to one instructor. (But to keep it from becoming a one-person bird, introduce your budgie to other people when class is not in session.)
Successful training relies on establishing acceptance and trust between you and your budgie. Speak softly to calm your bird, always move slowly and approach from the side rather than head on…preferably with a treat held between two fingers. Begin by coaxing your pet onto your hand. If it tries to fly off, you may have to repeat this several times. Once on your hand, let it step up to your other hand, then back and forth, gradually moving it to your index fingers. If your bird is inclined to bite the hand that feeds it, use a stick rather than your finger. If it bites hard and persistently, say No! in a loud, firm voice. Then repeat the exercise. You should conduct these hand-taming lessons several times a day, but only for short stretches, say about 20 minutes a session.
If you want to train your budgie to do tricks such as climbing ladders and ringing bells, encourage him or her with food rewards. When teaching your budgie to speak, it’s probably best that the instruction come from a child or woman with good enunciation and lots of patience. Because the learning process requires a fair bit of repetition, you might be tempted to tape your voice saying the desired words and phrases over and over, however, nothing beats your in-person instruction. The more words your budgie learns in its first year, the more phrases it will feed back over its lifetime. As a general rule of thumb, males are more vocal, but this trait varies from individual to individual.
Health – On average, the life span of budgerigars is about eight years, but some live longer than twice that. As these birds age, the most common problem we see is cancer, usually in the form of abdominal lumps. Budgies are also susceptible to scaly face disease where Cnemodocoptes mites cause scales to appear on the face, cere, eyelids and legs; the beak can also become deformed. Respiratory disorders, usually caused by mites or living in a dusty environment, are also not uncommon. The best way to prevent such problems is by regularly cleaning the cage. Other problems we see from time to time are bumblefoot, overgrown beaks and psittacosis.
Sick budgies signal they’re unwell in a variety of ways: sudden changes in behaviour, fluffed up feathers, lost of appetite, weight loss, diarrhoea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, glassy eyes, poor reaction to stimuli, submissiveness and drinking more than usual. If you notice any of these signs and they persist longer than 24 hours, you should bring your budgie to PAH.