Classic Budgerigars

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The Classic Budgerigar

Posted by borderglider on 27/11/2008

Which do you think is the Classic Budgerigar?

Which is the Natural Bird?

Which do you think is: most Natural;? Healthiest? most Beautiful?

Take a look at these two images. The bird on the left is an aviary-bred budgerigar from Omaha Zoo; the bird on the right is a champion ‘English Exhibition’ budgerigar.

Which do you think deserves to be called a ‘budgerigar’?. The bird on the left has the classic head, neck, beak, face-spots and colouration of a natural wild budgerigar – even though it has been bred from birds that have been in captivity for over a hundred years.  It has bright, shining eyes and looks healthy, agile and intelligent.  The ‘champion’ on the right shows what 50 years of in-breeding and artificial selection can do to a natural species. It has: no visible eyes (it is effectively blind), no recogniseable face spots, massively overgrown plumage, a gigantic head and coarse, disordered feathers.

The bird on the left will probably live for 10-15 years, raise 12 chicks per season and will be healthy and disease-free for most of its life.  The exhibition bird will probably live 4 years at the most – possibly as little as 2 years; it will be difficult to breed – and suffer from poor fertility and parenting; it will inherit a whole raft of genetic faults and will be vulnerable to diseases and congenital malformations.  The ‘natural’ bird can easily fly a mile or more and will be active all day long; it is light-weight and its muscles are well developed in proportion to its body. Exhibition birds cannot fly more than a few yards because of their enormous weight, unbalanced body and near blindness when looking forward.  All the natural bird’s qualities of health, vigour, vision, disease-resistance and longevity have been sacrified to produce one single characteristic – a huge, enormous, grotesquely feathered head.

The Natural, Wild Ancestor

Gould's Lithograph of Budgerigars from his Birds of Australia (1840s)

Wild Budgerigars: lithograph by John Gould (1840s)

The Australian aborigines knew this little ‘grass parakeet’ for over 40,000 years before Europeans arrived on their continent.  The English zoologist Dr. George Kearsley Shaw documented its existence for European Science  in 1794. He was first to describe  the small parrot called the ‘Australian Splendid Grass Parakeet‘, which he named  ‘Psittacus undulates‘ from dried specimens sent back to England from somewhere near Parramatta, New South Wales.The scientific name was later changed to ‘Melopsittacus Undulatus’ – meaning ‘the best of all the grass parakeets’.

We know this bird today as the Budgerigar; Americans often call them Parakeets; in France they are  ‘Perrouches Ondulées’

Painting of wild budgerigar - Melopsittacus undulatus

Painting of wild budgerigars painted by William T Cooper 1970

Vast flocks of wild budgerigars still range across the deserts and dry grasslands of the Australian Outback.  The wild species has not changed in form, colour, ecology or behaviour since it was first described by collectors in the 1820s.  It is a small, grass-green bird with yellow face-mask, six black face-spots and two violet cheek-flashes. It weighs just 30 grammes and is about 19cm in length.  These are ‘real budgerigars’, shaped by natural evolution, healthy, adaptable, tough and intelligent, capable of flying 250 miles in a single day.

A Four Million Year History

Fossilised bones found in Australia reveal that budgerigars have barely altered in the last four million years!  They have been around far longer than human beings have existed – and have thrived in Australia for a hundred times longer than the Aboriginal people who arrived about 40,000 years ago. Dr Rob Marshall has carried out long-term field studies into the breeding habits of wild budgerigars in Australia – and has produced a very detailed study entitled The Breeding Behaviour of Wild Budgerigars’ which you can read by clicking on the link.

Pet Shop Birds

If you visit any pet-shop in Europe or the USA you might still find yellow and green budgies with six black mask-spots and barred-heads – exactly like this illustration. However, the natural green birds are usually outnumbered 10:1 by the rainbow of colour mutations which have occurred in captivity: yellow, blue, grey, violet, cinnamon, pieds, clear-wings, opalines and so on. Many budgie exhibitors use pet shops as a way of disposing of unwanted stock -so what looks like a ‘green’ pet-shop bird could have many,  many recessive (unseen) characteristics – it could be a complete hotch-potch of all the colours above.  Consequently it is virtually impossible for the novice breeder to breed ‘pure colours’ from pet-shop stock. A petshop-pairing could produce any combination of: ‘green, blue, grey, lutino, violet, albino. cinnamon, opaline, pied, clearwing, lacewings’ – rather than simple greens or blues.

Poor Health – Reduced Lifespan

Birds bought in a pet shops are often the rejects from Exhibition Breeder’s stock and carry all the faults inherent in modern birds:

  • short lifespan,
  • poor fertility,
  • reduced disease resistance.

If you see birds with big heads, invisible eyes and rough, shaggy plumage – chances are these are the cast-offs from an Exhibition-Breeder’s stock. If you find young birds which look like the wild bird above – with a normal head, a nice flexible neck, visible eyes and lots of energy – chances are that this has come from a ‘pet-breeder’ and it will be more suitable as a pet or as an aviary bird.

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