Flight of the Budgerigar by Penny Olsen

Review by Richard Tutin

There are some Australians who are better known overseas than they are here in their own country. The budgerigar suffered from this fate for many years. As Penny Olsen explains in Flight of the Budgerigar, this small gregarious bird was, for many years, sought after by people outside of Australia but was not so highly regarded by locals until fairly recently.

Olsen takes us on a fascinating journey as she describes the budgerigar’s place in the narrative of our First Nations people through the colonial bird trade, the competitive culture of bird shows and on to the thriving wild flocks of the present time.

Along the way she offers us interesting and occasionally unsettling insights into the way in which budgies, as they are universally known, have been exploited, treated and genetically modified to keep up with worldwide demand. Though exploited, it has been genuinely loved by the many millions of people who have had either one in their homes or small flocks in their aviaries.

It has also received more colour changes than a Dulux colour card. As well as being green and gold in the wild, the budgerigar can also be blue, white, violet, grey and mauve to name a few variants. This has meant that we are more often familiar with the colourings of the domestic budgie than its cousin who lives in the arid regions of central Australia.

As well as introducing us to the bird itself, Olsen tells the stories of the various people who have been instrumental in bringing the budgerigar to the world’s attention. This includes ornithologist John Gould who was the first to bring live specimens to London in 1840. Others include notable people such as Sir Winston Churchill, Gracie Fields, and the family of the late John F. Kennedy.

It is interesting to note that wild flocks of budgerigars are like the economy. They have boom and bust cycles depending on weather conditions. For many, life is short because of these ever-changing parameters or they have become the food of many and varied predators.

For the Walpiri nation and their Arrernte neighbours around Alice Springs, the Budgerigar in its ancestral form is also a totem animal featuring in art, ceremonies, songlines and legends.

Olsen includes illustrations, photos and drawings as she tells the story of this remarkable bird that has found its way into the homes of many people offering companionship and comfort as well as strutting its stuff on the competition stage to win many accolades and prizes.

For a small bird, it has a big reputation. It was Australia’s first mass export but was at first ignored and forgotten while the rest of the world couldn’t get enough of it. Fortunately, that has changed. Olsen’s history not only documents its story but also shows that the budgerigar remains a universally favoured pet. As she says in closing, “what will be the next chapter in the extraordinary story of the little Australian bird that conquered the world.”

Dr Penny Olsen is an Honorary Professor in the Division of Ecology and Evolution at the Australian National University. After a career as a field biologist and ecological consultant, she is now mostly occupied writing books about Australian natural history and its recorders, both artistic and scientific. She has written more than 30 books including Night Parrot: Australia’s Most Elusive Bird (2018) and Australia’s First Naturalists: Indigenous Peoples’ Contributions to Early Zoology (2019).

Flight of the Budgerigar: An Illustrated History

Penny Olsen

(2021)

NLA Publishing

ISBN 9780642279606

$49.99; 272pp.

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