Budgerigar by Sarah Harris and Don Baker

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Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Loved by the Queen, Winston Churchill and millions of others, and key to Richard Branson’s first money making venture, the little Australian native bird’s story is a tapestry of historical and social detail as well as a celebration of the value of the budgerigar as a pet.

Highly entertaining, unexpectedly full of interesting facts, “Budgerigar” easily fills the book’s 250 pages. Commencing with diverting information on early white settlement, it evolves into accounts of how widely loved, even adored, it became as a charming pet for people all over the world.

Budgies were food for indigenous people. The eggs and babies were a delicacy. Cooked in the coals, which singed off the feathers, the birds were then eaten completely except the covering of the beak!

Because they are sought after as food for bats, their bones have been found in caves, at Riversleigh, in North Queensland. When carbon- dated, the fossils are declared to be 2,000,000 years old. They have been here long before even our first peoples.  They knew that flocks of budgerigars are renowned as water- finders. In the dry desert regions, they can detect the lifesaving water from miles away.

The budgie was introduced to the world beyond the deserts of Central Australia by the ornithologist, John Gould. In 1840, a pair survived the voyage to London and so began a near insatiable hunger to possess the bird. People regarded them as ideal pets. Their plumage is attractive, their personalities are charming and their lively, chatty nature make it a hit with all ages.

Sparkie, an English budgerigar, was famous for having a vocabulary of 583 words. Not as accomplished as some parrots, but a clever feat, none the least. Scientific study has shown that although their brains are tiny, they are large when the size of their bodies is considered.

There are astonishing tales of various exploits in War time. One little bird raised morale in the shelters of London by saying, when the name Hitler was said: “Nasty man, three cheers for Churchill”!

Before breeding budgerigars happened abroad, there was a huge industry, especially for South Australia. Millions of birds were captured and shipped to the Northern Hemisphere. So, there was a thriving business involving bird catchers, traders, skippers, even inn keepers.

Europeans bred new colours; and as the native green and yellow had only subtle variations, it was a patient task. Pure yellow was the first of which over the years became the over 30 pure colours possible today. Blue remains the most sought after.

Talking birds have entranced people for centuries, as records show. So, it is no surprise that the desire to own and breed budgerigars spread to Japan.  They used them as decoration, pets, even food. Last century, one budgie, a beautiful blue was bought by a Japanese man for $2,000.

Trading budgies was lucrative until the Great Depression when prices plummeted. Coupled with this, in the early 20th century, parrots as pets came under threat with the eruption of psittacosis. This is a virus combining pneumonia and typhoid like symptoms. Their owners could contract the disease and became very ill, sometimes dying.  Sir MacFarlane Burnett, the eminent scientist, investigated 30,000 wild budgies and found the virus present in some.

Panic ensued. People thought budgies were dangerous.  In fact, they were only at risk if the bird was kept in poor conditions.  There is a risk, however, of a severe allergic reaction to feathers: but more serious is the fact that a bird with polio can transmit it to humans.  Poor budgies – even blamed for the death of an Englishman who died falling down his stairs while chasing his pet!

To balance this gloomy view of the budgerigar, a pet had saved the life of its owner by repeatedly pecking her nose to awaken her and alert her to a fire. This was in Liverpool, UK.

The death of a pet budgie drew a man’s attention to a gas leak in his pantry and saved his life.

Countless people have fallen under the spell of the budgies’ charm. They make wonderful pets and companions to the aged. Both the humble and famous have owned one at some time. A sketch of John Lennon’s bird contributed to a sizeable profit for Oxfam!

This book contains a fascinating account of this little bird, which flies in great flocks, of thousands, even millions, out West. It demonstrates what a unique creature it has proved to be. Even if you never had a pet budgie in a cage, ‘Budgerigar’ is crammed with interest. The authors are to be congratulated. The extensive research, journalistic flair, and gentle humour have converted a small subject into a great source of entertainment. Sales of the book around the world should soar. Deservedly so.

Well written, full of interest, and a very popular subject, it is destined to increase the delight in the budgerigar, one of our best- known birds.

Budgerigar

[2020]

by Sarah Harris and Don Baker

ALLEN&UNWIN

ISBN   978 1 76087 548 0

$29.99; 252pp

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