Budgerigars, both wild and domestic, have a long and fascinating history as one of Australia's most popular exports

  • Budgerigar: How a Brave, Chatty and Colourful Little Aussie Bird Stole the World's Heart, by Sarah Harris and Don Baker. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.
Budgies really do look best in yellow and green. Picture: Shutterstock

Budgies really do look best in yellow and green. Picture: Shutterstock

Budgerigar tells the story of this ubiquitous bird, now most often seen in a domestic setting. The book deals with the budgie's evolution, its life before European settlement and its place in Indigenous societies, its export around the world, and notable birds and their owners. It's a fascinating and entertaining examination of this remarkable creature.

The first budgies taken as specimens by Europeans were probably those collected in 1791 "near present-day Parramatta". Budgies in the wild tend to live in inland areas, away from the sea, and their remarkable abilities to fly great distances to fresh water makes their numbers in any one area highly variable.

The budgerigar had many different names given to it by different Aboriginal people over vast areas of Australia, and Harris and Baker give a glimpse of the bird's place in belief and art, as well as being a food-source. Astronomy is mentioned. "The Wiradjuri of central New South Wales...know a smallish star in the constellation, formerly known as Argo Nevis, as Gidyirrigaa. Gidyirrigaa is the Wiradjuri word for budgerigar." The significance of the birds' ability to track water, and their constant chatter, is also mentioned in the section called "Budgerigar Dreaming".

Of course, the ability of some budgies to speak, and their amusing antics, are what led to their mass export to Europe and other areas. Their ability to breed quickly, linked to the sudden changes in their native environment, eventually ensured their place as one of the world's favourite pets. Throughout the book, the text is interspersed with short biographies of famous birds and their owners. Sparkie Williams, for example, had a vocabulary of 583 words, and a brief career as a recording artist in England. He is now stuffed and on display in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and an opera about the bird was written by Michael Nyman.

The book also examines the budgie's ability of the budgie to speak and even to understand grammar. "Research has also demonstrated that they can count to six, recognising which closed containers contain food by the number of dots painted on the top of them. They also yawn contagiously, just as human do - a trait linked to empathy and previously only found in other primates and dogs." It is not so surprising that budgies have been used by fortune tellers, as they seem to "know" more than other animals. Apparently, Iranian budgies in Shiraz "pluck a verse or quotation" by the great poet Hafez from a box in "a more lyrical version of bird prophesy".

The ability to breed different colours of budgie, and the eventual "progress" towards breeding mutations that render the bird unable to fly emphasise the fate of the budgie since it was taken from its native environment. "More than 150 years of intensive selective breeding, favouring the qualities that humans want to see rather than those who might serve the bird if they developed naturally, have had an inevitable effect on the creatures physiology. They are shorter-lived, less fertile, more prone to disease, less adept at parenting and simply incapable of foraging for themselves." Of course, most colour variations are relatively harmless, but, as with dogs, pets sometimes tend to be pushed into desired forms beyond what is beneficial for the animals themselves.

The book touches on ethical questions about keeping a bird on its own, alongside the many examples of budgies who have developed close relationships with people. Obesity is an unsurprising problem for birds who were originally designed to fly great distances in search of food and water, but who now sit in the corner of the lounge room and eat excessively to stave off boredom. It says more about people than birds that surgery for obese budgies is now an actual thing, at least in some parts of the world. On the other hand, the demand for killing many budgies specifically for feathers for fashionable European millinery is no longer practised, and this is one of the destructive uses to which the bird was put that resulted in controls on its export from Australia. (There is, incidentally, an excellent bibliography in Budgerigar, allowing for further reading on conservation and many other issues.)

I am writing this review listening to the chatter of four budgies in an aviary; a compromise after a beloved individual bird died after intensive medical treatment and even surgery (not for weight-loss purposes). The little bird that has enchanted people for a very long time, including individuals as well-known as Stalin and Churchill, continues to entertain many of us in suburban and urban settings. Harris and Baker's book has an interesting selection of photographs to compliment the text, and the stand-out images are of the birds in the wild, nesting in a tiny tree-hole, and drinking at a waterhole in Karratha. They really do look best in yellow and green.

An engaging and thorough history of this little bird, Budgerigar deserves to be read by everyone with an interest in ornithology, Australian history, and most importantly, everyone who keeps a budgie as a pet. Harris and Baker's book will fascinate and engage, rather like the living subject matter itself.

  • Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier, occasionally about budgies.
This story Our lovable - and chatty - export first appeared on The Canberra Times.