The budgerigar is arguably Australia’s best known bird. Many don’t know, however, that the multicoloured bird that comes to mind is as different from the free-living original as a chihuahua from a wolf. The native budgerigar has lived millennia of boom-bust cycles in the arid inland of Australia.
For Warlpiri people and their Arrente neightbours, the budgerigar (in its ancestral form) was a totem animal, featuring in art, ceremonies, songlines and legends. Following 1840, when ornithologist John Gould took live specimens to London, this little parrot truly spread its wings. The budgerigar was Australia’s first mass export; its story includes queens, princes and nobles, film stars, spies and world leaders.
Flight of the Budgerigar is the authoritative history of the budgerigar, written by respected ornithologist Dr Penny Olsen, and lavishly illustrated in full colour.
Jo Karmel, senior editor with a love for birds and natural history more generally, speaks with Penny Olsen, respected ornithologist and author, about her new and beautiful authoritative book, Flight of the Budgerigar.
*Speakers: Jo Karmel (J), Penny Olsen (P)
J: Welcome to our book launch. Today, we are chatting with Penny Olsen to launch her beautiful new book called ‘Flight of the Budgerigar’. Penny is a well-known and well-respected ornithologist who has written over 30 books on birds, natural history and bird artists. She is currently an Honorary Professor at the Research School of Biology at the Australian National University. Hi Penny.
P: Hi Jo.
J: Congratulations on the book, it’s absolutely gorgeous and it’s full of so much interesting information.
P: Thank you, I loved researching and writing it.
J: Ah good, yeah. So, was there any particular reason why you loved this one perhaps more than other books that you’ve written?
P: Well apart from the fact that it’s a fabulous, fascinating little bird there - it has such a great story and there are all sorts of little asides and snippets that I could hunt down.
J: Well we’ll get to some of those later because I’m sure people would love to hear some of those stories but can I ask you to start off, would you mind reading to us a paragraph from your introduction?
P: Be happy to. The arrival of water at Lake Eyre had triggered mass breeding events among several denizens of the inland plus avian visitors from coastal areas keen to take advantage of the ephemeral flush of food. On the plains and in wetter depressions grasses sprouted, greening the cracked earth and quickly seeding. The budgerigars raise several broods during the good months. Busy colonies nested around billabongs, every treehole supporting a pair or more. Even the youngsters contributing, raising chicks when they were only months old. Great chattering flocks of tens of thousands built up and streamed straight across the sky, wings whirring.
The squadrons kept formation, flashing first green and gold, wheeling in concert to dodge the avian predators that intercepted the flow. Masses alighted to grab the limbs of waterhole gumtrees like so much extra foliage and sit out the heat of the day. Morning and evening flocks swirled over billabongs, parties breaking off to warily crowd the shallows and cloud the surface for a hasty drink, re-joining the mob on the next circuit as still others descended.
J: Thank you, thanks, Penny. I can’t imagine seeing tens of thousands of budgerigars flying in the sky. Is that something that happens very often, that you would see so many budgies together?
P: No, it’s part of the famous boom and bust cycles of our inland that are really very dependent on rainfall, might happen every 10 or 15 years.
J: So that was in 2009. Is that the last time it happened?
P: No, we had another event just recently.
J: So, Penny, most people think of budgies as those cute little chirpy, cheery pets that families have at home and I believe that a lot of Australians also don’t even know that it is a bird native to Australia which is quite amazing and I guess that’s a function of it just being all over the world as that little pet. Can you just tell us, please, a little bit about the bird, about where it actually lives, what kind of habitat and various things like that so we get a picture of the wild budgerigar?
P: Yes well budgerigar, its natural habitat is the arid inland of Australia, the outback as we call it, with its boom and bust cycle as we’ve already discussed and yes, they just live there quietly most years breeding in very small numbers but every now and again they have these big breeding events and we really notice them during those occasions. They’re a little green and gold bird -
J: Australian colours.
P: Australian colours and I think there are some people who don’t realise, they’re not multicoloured in the wild. There’s maybe less than 1% of them are yellow, that is a natural mutation that does occur in the wild but the little yellow bird stands out very much in a flock of green and gold birds and the predators soon pick them off so they don’t last very long.
J: What about the difference between a male and a female budgie, how do you tell the difference?
P: Okay well the males are a little bit bigger but not enough for anyone to really notice. The main difference is that – and the adults, the male budgies have a blue cere, blue for boys and the females have a pinky-brown one so pink for girls.
J: Are they both as vocal as each other?
P: I think they probably are in the wild but the males tend to be the better talkers in captivity.
J: How important is the budgerigar to indigenous peoples of Australia?
P: I think it’s very, very important, it’s still the totem of some groups in the Northern Territory ‘round Yuendumu, the totem and for a lot of groups it provided food in the boom years, very easily obtained food. They breed in great colonies, sometimes several birds to a fallen log or whatever so easy pickings so it tended to be the kids that went out and collected the fat little nestlings during that period and if you were a bit stuck for water you could follow the flocks to water.
J: So that makes them pretty important in people’s survival.
J: You would need a lot of budgie eggs to make an omelette, though, wouldn’t you? The word budgerigar sounds as though it could be indigenous, is it actually an indigenous word?
P: Well for many years, probably for more than a century we thought it was in fact an indigenous word but it’s not, it’s a blend of an Eora word from around Sydney with an indigenous word so the bedgerigar or budgerigar beginning just means good or great or excellent and yes, that’s from around Sydney and the rest of it’s really unknown origin and meaning.
J: Penny, how did that happen that it’s an Eora word from around Sydney when in fact the budgerigar’s native habitat is in central part of Australia?
P: Well it wasn’t a name for the bird, it was just a word that meant good and then of course when John Gould found big flocks of budgerigars in the Hunter in one of these boom years or after one of these boom years he asked his local guides what they were called and they used this pigeon English and they told him they were called budgerigars which he took to mean the name of the bird but in fact we think now it probably means good to eat or good parrot.
J: I see, right, that makes sense. When did the budgerigar, when was it first known to western science?
P: Yes, the first budgerigar was collected on a vine very soon after settlement by a Colonel George Johnston of the First Fleet and it was a young bird, we think, after dispersing after again one of these boom events in the inland. It was sent to England as a skin and named by a scientist there in 1805 so 1805 is the official naming and first description of the budgerigar and it was accompanied by an illustration.
J: Which is in the book.
P: Which is in the book, yes and if you look at it it’s a very unpromising-looking bird, you wouldn’t think wow, that’d make a wonderful cage bird, it looks like it’s been run over by a semitrailer and -
J: Yes, somewhat flattened.
J: When did it start to be more noticed as a promising little bird?
P: Well again that was John Gould. That’s John and Elizabeth Gould of the Birds of Australia, the book with the famous illustrations. They came out in 1838, went home in early 1841 because they started a book on the birds of Australia and realised they just didn’t know enough so they came out, went home, took with them several budgies from Elizabeth’s brother’s place in the Hunter and two of them made it back and John took them to various meetings of the various philosophical and scientific societies and they were much admired because they were so chirpy and beautiful -
J: So these were not just flattened skins, were they? These were actually live budgies.
P: Yes, lively little living budgies and everyone fell in love with them then but of course they’re very rare. So they became much sought after and you could really only hope to get some if you were very wealthy and get the odd one that made it back to England at that time.
J: So what happened after that in terms of getting budgies over to England?
P: So about 20 years after Gould went home with his chirpy pair the inland had been explored to some extent then and the breeding grounds had been discovered and so masses of budgies started to be trapped and sent back in the holds of returning convict ships to England and suddenly they became available to the masses for a very reasonable price. Because they were easy to keep, small and easy to keep, they quickly became a very popular pet.
J: So I read in your book that some of these ships carried tens of thousands of budgies in their holds and this is over a four-month sea journey so they must have been fairly hardy or were they? I mean what was the survival rate like?
P: Well there are records of 90% of the cargo dying. In fact sometimes 100% if there’d been a tragedy at sea but yes so certainly thousands must have died, especially in the early days until they discovered that they could make the whole journey without water, just using what little water there is in dry seed for the whole four months and then carefully giving them a drink after they’d arrived, introducing water back carefully. The survival rates went up enormously and presumably that’s because there wasn’t water slopping around and getting mixed in with the droppings and spreading disease.
J: So the budgie became available to the masses in England and it spread throughout Europe too and so they were setting up breeding factories and there were books and budgie paraphernalia and it set off a whole little industry, didn’t it? Including, I believe, people who hauled budgies around on their shoulders and promised that the budgie for a few pennies or whatever it was would tell your fortune. So they become very good fortune-tellers. Now, Penny, I believe that you have your own little story from much more recent times about a budgie telling your fortune.
P: I do and yes, they became quite popular in the streets of London with the migrant women around the turn of the 19th, 20th century. For a few pennies they would tell your fortune and they made their living that way. Yes so back in the days when we used to be able to travel I was lucky enough to go to Iran and I went on a tour that included the tomb of Hafez, a very revered Persian poet that a lot of the locals visited and sat around meditating on his words and reading his books of poems and it was a big tourist attraction as well so a lot of visitors like us. Hovering around quite discreetly outside the gates was a man with two little budgies just free, sitting on a couple of boxes of cards. The guy said he’d tell your fortune for a few toman which is – I don’t know, was like 10 or 15c and whatever and I thought well, why not? So he indicated to one little budgie that it was his job to look into my future and he pulled out two cards, one from each box and the guide later translated them for me ‘cause they were in Farsi. The first one was just some lovely words from the poet and the second one was for me particularly and it said that there was a bit of trouble in my life at the moment but it would soon be okay and that I would be a writer and a writer for a very long time.
J: Whoa, spooky.
P: I’d really like to find that little budgie and see what else is in store.
J: Yes, when we can travel again you can go back and find it.
J: So while the budgie became very popular in England and Europe was it as popular in Australia?
P: Not for a very long time, not until the 1920s and ‘30s, particularly in the 1930s when Neville Cayley, who a lot of people know as the author of What Bird is That? The field guide, he really became the budgie’s champion and he started clubs and competitions and it really began to take off. Back then we didn’t have all the wonderful colours which were very – the variety of colours so the budgie in all its new wardrobe of colours, we had to buy back from Europe and it had been improved in inverted commas in other ways as well, we bought them back and started to breed them here.
J: Talking about all the different colours, I don’t know how many colours that budgies come in but it’s a lot of different colours but what colours have they not managed to be able to breed?
P: Only red and black even though they’ve tried very hard at various times.
J: Do you think they’ll ever be successful?
P: I suspect not now, no.
J: So once we bought these stud budgies back to Australia then Australia started having their own breeding systems, is that right?
P: They did and their own exhibitions and competitions and it really took off here as a pet as well. There were performing budgies at fetes and they were given away as prizes at schools and things like that.
J: I remember reading in your book that - this is long before that, that wild budgies were used for target practice.
J: It’s just extraordinary when you think about that these days.
P: Yes, you could imagine.
P: Yes, imagine the furore these days. That was during a boom year when they were very cheap to buy, I presume, and they were tried out in South Australia but the budgies won. These shooters were so unsuccessful that they gave up on budgies, they were just too fast and nippy. So it was one to budgies, zero to shooters.
J: Yes and back to shooting pigeons.
J: Let’s have a few stories about budgies. You’ve written a lovely description – well lovely might not be the word since it’s a horrible thing but the death of millions of budgies in a heatwave in 1932. Would you read us a bit about that from your book?
P: Yes, I’d like to. We had a similar heatwave in 2009 but this one was in 1932 and I wrote that on 10th of January Hedley Herbert Finlayson, a zoologist with great experience of the inland, arrived at Rumbalara Siding, halfway between Oodnadatta and Alice Springs to a scene of utter chaos and devastation. Swarms of weakened budgerigars, zebra finches and a few other species were arriving and attempting to escape the sun, flying into carriages, rooms and sheds and huddling under the train.
Tree branches snapped from the weight of the flocks. Passengers drained tanks to water the birds but still they fell dead from the sky. Others hit ceiling fans and windows in panic and dozens sheltering under the carriages were crushed on the tracks as the trains departed. Late in the month budgerigar bodies were still piling up to half a metre deep in places and in one day alone railway workers had to remove an estimated 12,000 carcasses so that trains could depart.
At Tarcoola too, several hundred kilometres south of Oodnadatta, temperatures had soared over the same period and rose again in the new year. For 16 consecutive days, maximum daytime temperatures reached 47 to 52 degrees centigrade. On the 11th day mass deaths began. To ornithologist, Neil McGill, inspecting carnage soon after the event it seemed that most deaths occurred at water points with adjacent trees or bushes and not at water in open country. He met a station owner who had dragged an estimated 60,000 feathered bodies from just one dam and he inspected a bore-fed well that was deeply covered in drowned birds, some 70% of them budgerigars. After the 10th day of the heatwave Tarcoola locals told him that the birds appeared to have become so stupefied by the heat that they dashed straight into the waters, becoming wet and were unable to rise again.
J: Oh that’s very sad, isn’t it?
P: Mm, yes.
J: Do you think that climate change will have an effect on how often these heatwaves affect budgie populations?
P: Yes, that does worry me. I think the budgie is doing pretty well compared with a lot of our Australian birds but climate change will bring more frequent heatwaves and hopefully they’ll be able to recover in the good years but the more frequent that the very hot years are, the more mass deaths will occur so I think it’s possibly a problem for the future, an increasing problem for the future.
J: Let’s get onto something a little bit more light-hearted.
J: Budgies can talk. Can you tell us a few stories about talking budgies?
P: Yeah well there were a few famous talking budgies, they became very popular in both Australia and England. The famous Australian one in the very late ‘30s, early ‘40s during the war was Billy Peach, no relation to the famous journalist, he came before the famous journalist. He became so famous raising funds for the war effort and he got his own radio show and starred in a couple of movies. He apparently even had his own body double stand-in, whatever and was a bit too inclined to ad lib and throw tantrums just like a real star. He used to introduce his – sorry, I was just going to look him up – Billy Peach began his broadcast – this is Billy Peach talking on the air and then he’d go on to recite nursery rhymes and tell jokes and things like that.
Then there was Sparky Williams had a big run of popularity in England in the late ‘50s and yes, his body’s now preserved in the museum, he was so famous and there’s been an opera based on his story.
P: The Guinness Book of Records, the record went to a little bird called Puck and he was studied in a properly controlled experiment to see exactly how many words he could say so they had 24 volunteers over a six-month period recording his vocabulary and he had a whopping 1,728 words.
P: As I’ve written, like most clever budgies Puck not only mimicked but created his own phrases and sentences. On Christmas morning in 1993 he was entertaining himself on the coffee table in the living room when his owners overhead him saying it’s Christmas, that’s what’s happening, that’s what it’s all about. I love Puckie, I love everyone.
J: So it just goes to show they’re not just mimics, they can actually manipulate language which is remarkable.
P: It is, yes.
J: One last story, Penny. Churchill had a budgie called Toby that he was utterly devoted to. Can you tell us about that?
P: Well Churchill was notoriously inclined to fall into depressions so he loved to surround himself with animals but the budgie was a very special one to him and during his stint as peacetime Prime Minister in the ‘50s he had a budgie called Toby who’d go to family dinners and carry the salt shaker down the table and then empty all the salt out to the great amusement of Churchill’s grandchildren every time. He wasn’t a talker, Toby, but he attended Ministerial meetings that Churchill famously held around his bedside first thing in the morning, whisky in hand with Toby either perching on his shoulder or on the rim of the whisky glass having sips of whisky and pooping on the very patient Ministers around Churchill’s bed. He’d even go on holidays with Churchill in his cage until Churchill took him to Monte Carlo for a break and he left the window open accidentally and Toby flew out and despite enormous efforts they didn’t find him again. So I don’t know if we want to end on that sad note but -
J: Oh dear. In your book you have this lovely photo of - well very poignant photo of the empty bird cage sitting all alone in the garden waiting for Toby to return which he never did.
P: Yes, it is very evocative but Churchill’s friend, Aristotle Onassis, gave him another budgie. Despite Churchill’s protests that he only wanted Toby and nothing else would do, the new budgie quickly won him over.
J: Yes and there’s a photo of that budgie too in the book.
J: Penny, the modern budgie, how different is it to the original wild budgie, having gone through 100 years of selection?
P: Yes well the pet budgie, the highly domesticated budgie that you would see in pet shops, it’s about half as heavy again as the wild one, it has a bigger head and relatively smaller eyes. Obviously it has a huge wardrobe of bespoke colours from mauve to olive green and bright yellow and white and turquoise and various mixtures of those and blue, baby blue, azure blue. Of course they’re bred behaviourally to be less nervy, less flighty, they can’t fly as well. They’re just bred to be wonderful companions.
J: There is a supersize budgie, though, isn’t there?
P: There is so if you go into these show budgies and the supersize budgies, the supersize budgie seems to be rather uncommon but it’s twice as big again, a really big bruiser. Then the exhibition budgie they still have in shows, the latest champions often seem to have what they call the crests but to be able to call them fringed budgies.
J: If you have a look at that photo in your book of that particular budgie it certainly looks like a fringe, not a crest.
P: Yes. So it’s amazing how much we have changed them.
J: Thank you, Penny, very much for having a chat today about your wonderful book. I really enjoyed reading it and I recommend it to everybody. It’s available now, I believe, in all good bookshops, it’s published by the National Library of Australia. So I’m going to declare the budgerigar free and let’s hope it soars onto everybody’s bookshelves.
P: Thank you, Jo, that’s lovely.
J: Thanks, Penny.