Budgerigar

Melopsittacus undulatus
Budgerigar, Scientific name


Budgie Balancing Trick


Watch this short video of a pet budgie balancing on a tennis ball.

Introduction


When it comes to pet birds, budgerigars have been popular options for years. These small parrots can be found in just about any pet store, but they're generally only found in the wild in Australia. Although it's not unusual to run across budgerigars of many different colors and patterns, those variations have come about through strategic, carefully planned breeding through the years. Despite their diminutive size, these birds make fascinating pets. They have been charming people for years with their playful personalities, gorgeous coloring, intelligence and sociability. Budgerigars are affordable pets, and they are easy to care for as well.


With budgerigars, there's a lot more than meets the eye. Until you've actually taken the time to get to know a budgerigar, it's easy to assume that they are like any other bird. In the wild, budgerigars are prized for their bright, vibrant feathers. In captivity, they are popular for being easy, fun pets to have in the home. People have been breeding budgerigars for decades to develop exciting new color variations and markings. If you're thinking about adopting one, you can take your pick from more than 100 different variations. Before you do that, though, study up about this fascinating bird below.

A Brief History of the Budgerigar


Budgerigars have ancestors that stretch back for millennia. In fact, these birds first appeared on earth long before humans. They are native to Australia, and the first humans who came into contact with them were most likely the aborigines of that land. The first recorded description of the budgerigar was made in 1805 by an English zoologist and botanist named 
George Shaw. The first budgerigar was brought to Europe by an English ornithologist named John Gould in 1840, and the first captive breeding began just a decade later during the 1850s. Although the first recorded color variation wasn’t made until 1870, a wide variety of variations followed shortly thereafter. The budgerigar’s popularity as a household pet rose dramatically during the 20th century, and the bird continues to be a very popular pet to this day.

Etymology


In some places, budgerigars are commonly referred to as “parakeets.” That’s misleading, however, because the term “parakeet” can refer to one of several dozen kinds of small parrots that have long feather trails. Other common names for the
budgerigar include budgie, common pet parakeet, shell parakeet, canary parrot, flight bird, love bird, scallop parrot, zebra parrot and warbling grass parakeet. Variations on the word “budgerigar” include betcherrygah and budgerygah.

There’s a lot of debate out there about the origins of the term “budgerigar.” Many believe that it is derived from the aboriginal word “betchegara,” which means “good to eat.” Others think that it comes from various Australian slang terms. For example, “budgery” means “good,” and “gar” means “cockatoo.” It is possible that the two terms were put together to create the name of the lovable pet parrot that is so popular today.

The budgerigar’s scientific or binomial name is Melopsittacus undulatus. The term was coined by John Gould, the same English ornithologist that originally brought the first budgies to Europe. The first part, Melopsittacus, is Greek and means “melodious parrot,” which is quite fitting. The second part, undulatus, is Latin and means “wave-patterned” or “undulated.” That term clearly refers to the scalloped or undulated patterns that give the budgie such a distinct appearance.

Physical Traits of the Budgerigar


Most people can recognize a budgerigar when they see one, but it’s still interesting to take a closer look at the unique physical appearance of this popular pet bird. There are many variations in terms of colors and patterns, but the following information applies strictly to natural budgies that haven’t been bred to achieve different color variations.

  • Basic Characteristics – The average budgerigar is approximately seven inches in length and weighs between 1.1 and 1.4 ounces. They have wingspans of 10 inches to 14 inches. Common budgies’ bodies are light green. Their mantles, which consist of their backs and wings, typically have yellow undulations and black markings.
  • Forehead and Face – Adult budgies have yellow faces. Small purple patches are also found on their cheeks. Until they get their adult plumage, immature budgies have black-colored stripes from their foreheads to their ceres or noses.
  • Throat Spots – Black spots appear on both sides of a budgerigar’s throat (Binks 23).
  • Tail Feathers – When standing, a budgie’s tail is dark blue or cobalt in color. Upon stretching or taking flight, the yellow coloring of the outside tail feathers is revealed.
  • Bill and Legs – A budgie’s legs are usually bluish-gray in color, and it has an olive-gray bill.
  • Toes – Budgies are unique in the avian world because they have zygodactyl toes (Birmelin 16), which means that the second and third toes face forward and the first and fourth toes face backward. This characteristic makes budgerigars adept climbers and allows them to perch comfortably.
  • Beak – Another distinct thing about the budgie is its beak. The upper portion of its beak is strong and smooth, and it is much larger than the lower portion of the beak. When a budgie’s beak is closed, the lower portion is completely covered. Due to the puffy, fluffy feathers that cover a budgie’s face, its beak appears to be almost flush and points down in a distinctive way. The budgie can close its beak very tightly, which allows it to keep a firm grip on food, nesting materials and other things.
  • Cere – The cere is the part of the face that contains the nostrils, and you can determine the sex of a budgie by looking at it (Lohr 12). In males, the cere is royal blue in color. In non-breeding females, its color ranges from pale brown to white. In breeding females, it is brown. Immature budgies’ ceres are pink, so it’s not always possible to determine the sex of a very young parakeet by looking at its cere.
  • Plumage – It should also be noted that a budgie’s plumage fluoresces in UV light (Alderton 38), which may come in handy during courtship. Oils in the feathers protect them from moisture, which keeps these small birds from being weighed down and unable to fly. Budgies molt naturally from time to time, and the long feathers in their wings and tails provide adequate balance.
  • Color Vision - Human beings have trichromatic vision, which means that our eyes have three cone cell types. We are unable to see colors in the UV spectrum. Budgies, on the other hand, have tetrachromatic vision, which means that their eyes have four cone cell types. They are able to see colors in the UV spectrum, and they take full advantage of it when mating and foraging.

Behavioral Traits


Budgies have fascinating personalities that make them excellent pets. They are extremely playful and curious, and they love to explore. They have a strong flock mentality, which means that they are happiest when they are among other budgerigars. Common budgie behaviors include:

  • Stretching - Budgies stretch from time to time to get exercise and to get their blood flowing.
  • Beak Grinding - While asleep, budgerigars often nibble or grind their beaks.
  • Preening - To stay clean, budgies preen on a regular basis. They get oil from the "preen gland" at the base of the tail and use it to keep their feathers in excellent shape.
  • Fluffing - It's not unusual to see budgies fluff themselves up or shake around, and they usually do this when they're done preening. It gets their feathers back into order. They may also do this immediately before taking a nap, and it's sometimes a part of mating behavior.
  • Chewing and Shredding - Budgerigars' beaks are always growing. To keep them from becoming overgrown, these birds enjoy shredding things up and chewing on things (Robinson and Kelsey-Wood 12).
  • Napping - Around midday, most budgies take naps. They typically nap for 15 to 45 minutes.
  • Yawning - Whether it's done before a nap or immediately after one, yawning is normal. A budgerigar's throat might move forward when he yawns, and that's normal too.

Budgies in the Wild


There are more than five million
 budgies in the wild today. In the wild, budgies are generally a lot smaller than their captive counterparts. As nomadic birds, they stick to open habitats like scrublands, woodlands and grasslands in dry parts of Australia, and they have inhabited this part of the world for more than five million years. The availability of water and food determines where they go. In times of drought, they typically move over to coastal and wooded regions. Their flocks are usually small, but they occasionally travel in large flocks. Wild budgies’ diets consist of things like insects, grains and seeds. Their natural predators are snakes and birds of prey. They communicate by warbling. Unlike most birds, they don’t build nests.

Budgerigars and humans


Budgies in Captivity


Budgerigars or parakeets have been bred in captivity since the 1850s. Certain budgies are bred for show, and they are often referred to as English or show budgies. Show budgerigars can be up to twice as large as their counterparts in the wild, and their heads are exceptionally puffy and fluffy. As a result, their beaks and eyes are almost totally covered.

As social animals, budgies need to be stimulated in order to stay happy and healthy in captivity. Humans who can’t be around all the time should consider buying budgerigars in pairs. However, keeping several female budgies in a single cage is not a good idea because fights often ensue. In captivity, budgies can often be taught to mimic certain words. Male parakeets that are kept alone tend to perform the best.

Color Mutations


There are 32 primary color mutations in the world of budgerigars. They are split into two main categories: White-based mutations that consist of grays, blues and whites, and yellow-based mutations that consist of yellows, gray-greens and greens. In addition to the 32 primary color mutations, hundreds of secondary color mutations are possible. A huge array of patterns and feather mutations are also possible. Common varieties include crested, albino, clear-winged, opaline, gray-winged, violet and spangled budgies. Budgerigars have been bred to produce different color variations since the 1850s. In stores, the most common varieties are blue, yellow and green.

Breeding


In general, budgerigars are opportunistic breeders, which means that they breed when they have reliable access to grass seeds and other foods. Therefore, parakeets often breed in the wild following long periods of rain. In northern Australia, they commonly breed between June and September; in southern Australia, they commonly breed between August and June. These periods of time coincide with wet times of the year when food sources are ample and reliable.

Budgies are monogamous. They usually stick with one partner for life. Partners show affection to each other by preening and feeding one another. Female budgies can lay eggs without partners, but they are unfertilized and don’t hatch. When she’s ready to lay eggs, a female budgie’s cere becomes crusty and brown. These birds don’t build nests, and females lay their eggs inside trees, logs and posts.

Budgie eggs have a plain, white color and are usually between one and two centimeters in length. There are usually four to six eggs, and females lay one egg every two days or so. As a result, eggs hatch at staggered times as well. The eggs have to be incubated for 18 to 21 days, and the age difference between the first hatchling and the last one can range from nine to 16 days. While incubating her eggs, the female budgerigar only leaves for very brief intervals (Radtke 56). Her mate usually brings her food and feeds it to her by eating it first and regurgitating it into her mouth.

Breeding problems are rate in the budgie world, but they do happen. Females often fight over nest boxes (Allen 14). Due to insecurity, female budgies sometimes eat their own eggs. From time to time, male budgies have no interest in female budgies; this problem usually happens when birds are unable to live in a flock setting.

Development


When they are born, budgerigars are altricial, which means that they are completely helpless and blind. For the first few days of a young budgie’s life, his mother must feed him and keep him warm. Around the tenth day, baby budgies’ eyes open for the first time. This is also when they begin to develop feather down and don’t need to rely on their mother as much for warmth.

Around the third week of life, young budgies begin to develop real feathers. In many cases, the male partner is allowed to start helping with the baby budgies as well, although female parakeets don’t always allow it. Single mothers and bird couples that are extremely overwhelmed occasionally give one or two babies to a foster pair. The pair must be breeding or raising hatchlings themselves in order to take on this role.

As the fifth week approaches, baby budgies begin stretching their wings in order to strengthen them. They become a lot more self-sufficient, so their parents are able to leave the nest for longer and longer periods of time. They also learn how to scare away predators by screeching and being noisy. When their wings become strong enough, they fledge or learn to fly for the first time.

By the sixth week, most baby budgies are completely weaned and able to leave home for good.

Health


If you’re thinking about adopting a budgie, you need to be completely aware of how a healthy one looks and behaves. A healthy budgie preens and grooms regularly. He has a good appetite and is as active as can be. His beak is firm and intact, and his cere is waxy. Droppings should be firm, and they should harden up quickly. A healthy budgie has plenty of feathers, strong claws and unblemished feet.

It’s important to be on the lookout for the common signs of ill health in a budgerigar. An excessive loss of feathers can be a big red flag. Other warning signs include encrusted feet, mites in the feathers around the beak and the cere, a crusty cere, an overgrown or under-grown beak, spiky head feathers and runny droppings. If a budgie keeps his beak wide open while breathing, it could be a sign of a serious health problem.

Common Health Problems


Like any other animal, budgerigars occasionally suffer from various ailments. In the very beginning of life, some immature budgies suffer from a condition called “splay legs,” which is characterized by one leg that is permanently bent outward. This prevents a bird from standing properly and can affect his ability to reproduce and compete for food. Fortunately, it’s easy to ward off this issue. It’s usually caused by nest boxes with slick floors that cause young birds to slip and slide. Shavings or bedding can prevent this problem and keep splay legs at bay.

There are many budgie or parakeet ailments. A few of the most common ones are highlighted below.

  • Bumblefoot - This condition begins with inflammation or infection at the bottom of a budgie’s foot. Over time, the skin gets thinner and redder. If left untreated, ulcers can develop. Eventually, the tissue on the bottom of the feet becomes necrotic or dies, which allows the infection to spread to the bone. Bumblefoot frequently happens in captivity when people provide the wrong types of perches for their budgies. Perches that are too hard can cause bumblefoot, and dirty perches can cause it too. Once the condition has developed, antibiotics usually need to be administered.
  • Scaly Face and Scaly Legs - This painful and unsightly condition is actually caused by a parasitic infection that involves mites called cnemodocoptes pilae. They cause the buildup of scales with tiny holes on or around a bird’s legs, vent, eyes and beak. It needs to be treated with a medicine called ivermectin, although it can sometimes be managed with a disinfectant called Dettol.
  • Tumor - Due to budgies’ lightning-fast metabolisms, tumors usually grow quickly. Tumors of the kidney, testicles, ovaries and adrenal glands are the most common. Fatty tumors are also very prevalent.
  • Polyomavirus - This condition is also known as budgerigar fledgling disease and usually strikes down chicks immediately after they hatch.
  • Psittacosis - Another common term for this condition is “parrot fever,” and it can be transmitted through the air or orally. Digestive and respiratory symptoms usually occur. It is highly contagious among birds, so affected birds must be isolated. This condition can also be transmitted to humans.
  • French Molt - This refers to a condition in which a budgerigar’s feathers fall out and don’t return. Feathers on the tail and wings are usually affected, and this condition can be spread to other birds.
  • Feather Plucking - When a budgie excessively plucks his feathers, it is usually a sign of loneliness or boredom. New toys or a new friend can alleviate the problem most of the time.
  • Goiter - If a budgie doesn’t get enough iodine in his diet, he can develop this condition, which involves the enlargement of the thyroid gland. This condition affects the sound of a bird’s voice.

Diet


Budgerigars are primarily vegetarians, although they often eat insects in the wild. In captivity, there are many ways to provide a budgerigar with a balanced diet. To be extra safe, however, you should always keep a mineral block in your budgie’s cage. It will make up for anything that his regular diet may be lacking.

  • Vegetables - Budgies enjoy a wide range of different vegetables including carrots, cucumbers, squashes, yams, turnips, zucchinis, tomatoes, cauliflowers and romaine lettuce.
  • Grains - In the wild, budgerigars thrive off of grass seeds. In captivity, grains like couscous, barley, flax, oats, quinoa, wholegrain pastas, whole rice, wild rice and millet are all excellent options.
  • Legumes and Nuts - From time to time, you should provide your budgie with fresh nuts and legumes. Options include pinto beans, kidney beans, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds and almonds.
  • Hazardous Foods - You should never give your budgie any of the following foods: lima bean or navy bean sprouts, cabbage, lemons, potatoes, grapefruits, plums, rhubarb, onions, chocolate, garlic or any type of food that contains lactose.

Tips for Setting Up a Budgie's Cage


Upon bringing your new budgerigar home, you’re going to want to make him as comfortable and happy as possible. The first order of business is selecting the appropriate cage. Budgies like to be active, so you should try to get a cage that is at least 40 inches long, 20 inches deep and 32 inches high. Choose a cage that comes with built-in horizontal perches, and make sure the perches are made out of natural wood (Birmelin and Niemann 23).

As far as “decorating” your budgie’s cage, you need to keep comfort, safety, health and entertainment in mind. If the cage that you buy doesn’t come with perches, you’ll need to buy some. The right perch will be at least half an inch wide and should be made out of wood. Natural branches work perfectly fine, and rope is a nice option too.

Cover the bottom of the cage in newspaper for easy cleaning, and plan on cleaning your budgie’s cage every few days. Make sure that your budgerigar always has access to fresh water and seeds. The cage should include at least one chew toy, or your parakeet won’t be able to keep his beak in good shape. It should also include a mineral block to ensure that he gets all the minerals he needs. Toys like mirrors and swings can also come in handy. Some people believe that mirrors discourage budgies from learning to talk, but no conclusive studies have been performed.

Training a Budgerigar


  • Hand Taming – Before anything else can be accomplished, your budgie has to be comfortable with your hand. The worst thing you can do is shove your hand into his cage. You shouldn’t just reach in and grab him either. The first step is to put your hand in his cage without getting it near him (Teitler 46). This allows him to get used to its presence. Over several sessions, gradually move your hand closer and closer to your budgie. After a while, he will be used to it.
  • Teaching a Budgie to Jump onto Your Finger – This is a neat trick, and the best way to accomplish it is by offering treats. Use millet to encourage your budgie to jump onto your finger. Place your finger against the base of his chest, and use your other hand to offer him the treat. When he jumps on your finger, allow him to enjoy the millet. Eventually, he’ll know to jump right onto your finger when you place it against his chest.
  • Whistlng – This is a precursor to mimicking actual words. Start with two or three simple whistles in a row. Many times, birds get the hang of it and are then able to whistle more complex tunes.
  • Mimicking – Although people often brag about teaching their budgerigars how to speak, the truth is that budgies simply mimic human speech. That doesn’t make it any less impressive, though. Repetition is the only way to go (Feyerabend 40). Choose a simple word or phrase like “pretty boy” and repeat it as often as possible. Eventually, he might surprise you and say it back to you.

Top Reasons to Adopt a Budgie


Are you still on the fence about adopting a budgerigar? If so, the following reasons might just convince you to take the plunge.

  • They are Smart - Budgies are members of the parrot family. Like parrots, they are extremely intelligent. In addition to being capable of mimicking human speech, these birds can learn a wide range of tricks. Their intelligence makes them worthwhile pets to have in the home, and they provide hours of entertainment.
  • They are Pretty - The first thing that prompted people to start keeping parakeets or budgerigars as pets was their appearance. Initially, these birds only came in a single variety. These days, hundreds of color variations exist. No matter which color variation you choose, you can rest assured that your budgie will brighten up your home in a big way.
  • They are Affordable - You don’t have to spend a fortune to buy a budgie, and you don’t have to break the bank to keep one happy and healthy. Basic budgies are sold for very low prices. While fancy, expensive cages are available, it’s perfectly easy to find affordable options too. These birds subsist off of seeds and grains, so it doesn’t cost a lot to feed them.
  • They are Active - Budgies don’t tend to sit around doing nothing. As long as they receive plenty of stimulation, they tend to be extremely active. It’s even more enjoyable when you adopt at least two budgies, so keep that in mind.
  • They Make Great Companions - While budgerigars can’t tag along with you in the car or go for walks with you around the block, they still make wonderful companions. Whether your budgie learns how to “speak” or not, he is sure to become a valued member of your family. Each bird has his own distinct personality, and there’s never a dull moment with a budgie in the house.  

From their humble beginnings in the Australian wild, budgerigars have evolved to become among the most popular household birds. Their bright plumage, playful personalities and keen intelligence make them excellent additions to any home. Now that you know a lot more about budgies, finding the one that’s right for you should be as easy as can be. Whether you’d like a bird with striking color variations, or if you’d prefer a more traditional budgie, you won’t be disappointed. As long as you keep your parakeet’s cage clean and provide him with plenty of food, water, toys and attention, he is sure to become your friend until the end.

Cited Texts:


  • Alderton, David. A Birdkeeper's Guide to Budgies. N.p.: Tetra Press, 1996.
  • Allen, William H. How to Raise and Train Budgerigars. N.p: T.F.H. Publications, 1989.
  • Binks, Gerald S. Best in Show: Breeding and Exhibiting Budgerigars. N.p: Arco Publications, 1985.
  • Birmelin, Immanuel. Budgerigars: everything about purchase, care, nutrition, behavior, and training. N.p.: Barron’s, 1998.
  • Birmelin, Immanuel and Niemann, Hildegard. Budgerigars: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual. N.p. Barron’s, 2008.
  • Feyerabend, Paul K. Parakeets. N.p.: T.F.H. Publications, 1992.
  • Lohr, J.E. Your First Budgerigar. N.p.: T.F.H. Publications, 1991.
  • Radtke, George A. Step-By-Step Book About Budgerigars/Parakeets. N.p.: T.F.H. Publications, 1987.
  • Robinson, Brian and Kelsey-Wood, Dennis. Howell’s Beginner’s Guide to Budgerigars. N.p.: Howell Book House, 1986.
  • Teitler, Risa. Taming and Training Your First Budgerigar. N.p.: T.F.H. Publications, 1998.

References


Sources

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