Title - The Ever Changing Budgerigar
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This page takes the reader on a different kind of tour of the world of budgerigars. You will be invited to see things from a different angle -- in a different light. Your guide's qualifications are simply some 20+ years of small-scale budgie keeping, and the achievement of an average lifespan of 9 years and 2 months with retained, own-bred stock.

Close-up of wild budgerigar Some readers will be aware already that the budgerigar in Britain has changed dramatically at the hands of exhibition breeders. These changes have filtered down to more humbly-born budgies, and now it is a rare thing to see a bird that genuinely resembles the original, wild imports and their close descendants.

Photo' of a juvenile wild budgerigar

© Mick Blake; courtesy Mick Blake and The Parrot Society of Australia Inc

Most writers sing the praises of the modern, 'improved' bird and its skillful breeders, but this page is in praise of the neglected, original, perfect kind of budgerigar: the old-fashioned budgie of yesteryear! My term for these little beauties is 'wild-type', that is to say, budgies which are like the wild Australian ones in size, shape and capabilities. (I'm not referring to colour when I use the term 'wild-type'. Colour is pretty much irrelevant as regards the bird's quality of life and the enjoyment of its owner).

Table of Some of the Changes:

Breast

Wild/ Wild-Type
Flat/shallow, as in other birds of the parrot family.
British Exhibition
Very much fuller/deeper.

Width of
Body

Wild/ Wild-Type
Surprisingly narrow across the 'shoulders'.
British Exhibition
Hugely broader.

Length

Wild
Wild budgerigars average around 182 mm (approx. 7¼ inches), with males tending to be longer than females.
British Exhibition
I believe they are in the region of 40 mm (1 ½ inches) longer than wild birds.

I have not been able to find any length measurements of exhibition budgerigars; can any reader provide?

Back
Line

Wild/ Wild-Type
A slightly rounded shape, as is the norm for most birds.
British Exhibition
Varying from straight to substantially hollowed.

Posture/
Balance

Wild/ Wild-Type
Tending to perch at about 35° to 40° to the vertical, - the ideal poise for a high speed, instant launch. Feet close together.
British Exhibition
Average stance 19.6° to the vertical; varies between 30° and a much more upright 12°. - A poor position for forward take off. Some individuals perch with their feet splayed apart.
Helpful Pictures

Forehead

Wild/ Wild-Type
Narrow; not high. Close-feathered.
British Exhibition
As broad and high as possible, the effect augmented by sumptuous feather. There's been a lot of change in this department in recent years.

Eyes

Wild/ Wild-Type
Eyes bold and prominent, as is normal for virtually all bird species. Eye surfaces visible when bird is viewed from directly in front, above or behind, providing him or her with a wonderful field of vision without even moving the head - of the order of 300° on the horizontal plane.
British Exhibition
Much less prominent because of excessive facial feathering. Eyes often appear half closed. Eye surfaces cannot be seen at all when head is viewed from directly in front, above or behind, therefore the bird's field of vision must be much reduced. The general effect on appearance is most unbirdlike.

Throat
Spots

Wild/ Wild-Type
Smart, neat necklace of 6, evenly spaced, tiny spots, within the short mask.
British Exhibition

Most have a motley collection of spots and blotches of various shapes and sizes. For a show, all but the best 6 must be carefully cut away or plucked. Those 6 primary spots are often hanging half out of the long mask.

Flight

Wild/ Wild-Type
Direct or undulating at will. Flight is sustained well, and wings are whisper-quiet. Can make all manner of lightning-quick manoeuvres; able to hover; can fly well when wet. Wild budgerigars are thought to be capable of flying 100km. without stopping, and are exceptionally fast for small birds. Flocks perform wonderful, wheeling movements in unison - rather like starlings do but with the drama of flashing colour - and the species is renowned for this more than anything else. One of my wild-type budgies once performed a loop-the-loop right in front of me! - a treasured memory.
British Exhibition
Thanks to shoddy engineering and lousy aerodynamics, these descendants of ancient perfection can only thunder through the air for short distances. They have no breaks! Cannot manoeuvre well, nor hover, nor fly when wet.

Really Dynamic!
So, you see, there's a whole world of difference between the exhibition budgie of today, and the wild or old-fashioned bird. You can also see that the changes haven't been in the bird's best interests. They don't benefit the pet owner either, because the larger bird is much less lively and may sit about a lot instead of doing entertaining things and getting up to endearing mischief. Today, the average budgerigar is so much slower and less active than the authentic budgie that it is almost impossible to grasp with the mind just what has gone missing. Unless you have owned a really dynamic little gem, (and such are always very tiny), you can't, I don't think, appreciate the irresistible beauty of constant graceful movement and irrepressible vitality. A tiny budgie in robust health is really dynamic!! beyond the imagination of anyone accustomed only to bigger budgies. Also, exhibition breeders themselves believe that today's winning strains have a shorter life expectancy.

Rare Today
Sadly, few younger people today have had the chance to meet a wild-type budgerigar, because they have become so rare, (although there is regional variation). I believe they are certainly in danger of extinction in Britain, and action is urgently needed or the worst will happen. They cannot be bred from birds which simply do not have their traits.

Inspiring Words from the Past
"One of the chief charms of the budgerigar is its small size. This places it in a class apart from other parrots." -- Neville Cayley 1935
I once ordered an old, old book from the library called 'Budgerigars in Bush and Aviary' by Australian author Neville W. Cayley. Though I am no bookworm, I became so absorbed in the fascinating contents of those thick, fading pages that I read the whole volume in one sitting, finishing in the small hours! My favourite quote from Neville Cayley is: "One of the chief charms of the budgerigar is its small size. This places it in a class apart from other parrots. And being an Australian species it is the duty of Australians to combat and condemn any attempt that may be made to alter its size and so spoil one of the world's most beautiful parrots." (2nd edition 1935; published by Angus & Robertson Ltd., Sydney). May I add that there is a responsibility resting upon breeders in other budgie-keeping countries also?

Inbreeding Damage
The budgerigar's situation is made much worse by the tremendous damage caused by up to a century of reckless inbreeding - (pairing of related birds). In fact this damage is more serious than anything mentioned so far. Here, non-exhibitors are just as guilty as anyone else, because in many a garden aviary no attempt is made to prevent close relatives from pairing. A cock will be free to breed with his mother or sister, and a hen with her brother or father. Other available mates will in any case be uncles, half brothers, cousins etc. The budgerigar is not a species designed to cope with this, and the damage is the same as it would be in a human community. The effects are depressingly common and include slow growth, slow maturity, general lack of vigour, life long production of soft or pale droppings, accelerated claw growth, lowered fertility, weakened respiration, very highly strung or aggressive temperaments and premature death from all sorts of complaints. Few budgerigars around today have completely escaped all of these sort of problems. Additionally, there are nasty genetic diseases about, such as the prolapse factor that ended one of my budgie families. Buying a bird, especially for breeding purposes, is a very risky business - which of course gives people another reason to inbreed.

Thousands Loved Little Budgies
The original budgerigars were loved for their beauty as well as for their charm and talent. Their small size was a cause of wonderment, considering that previously known talking parrots were so much bigger.

When budgerigars began to be exported from their native Australia, people in Europe went crazy over them. They didn't complain that the birds ought to be a whole lot bigger, they just loved them. They certainly didn't grumble that their eyes showed too much. Budgerigars were a big craze in the old days, before they underwent massive modification. By 1865, the birds at a dealer's at Wapping sometimes numbered 2000. By the late 1880's budgerigar breeding was an industry, and one establishment at Toulouse in the south of France, had fifteen thousand birds! By 1913, the figure at the same establishment was between 80,000 and 100,000. Their chief customers abroad were England, Germany and Russia. The point I wish to make is that all these myriads of budgerigars were un-modified, wild-type birds, and most of them were green.

Sacrificed in Pursuit of Challenge
The exhibition budgerigar has evolved rather than being designed deliberately from the outset. The increase in size began, I believe, with breeders' efforts to reverse the dwarfing and degeneracy that had come about because of inbreeding. Inbreeding had been used intensively to build up the numbers of the exciting new colours, which sold for very high prices. This started the trend towards heavier birds, a trend which has continued mainly because breeders have wanted a challenge and have therefore updated their 'Ideal' bird every so often. Show-breeding can't stand still, and no one involved in it wants it to stand still.

"Their Beauty lies in Their Diminutiveness"
I shall close this article with another quote from Neville W. Cayley's book 'Budgerigars in Bush and Aviary'. This time, Mr. Cayley is himself quoting someone else - namely one E. W. Jones: "Some breeders, especially those overseas who have never seen these birds in their natural state, persistently breed for abnormal size and are encouraged by judges who would like to see them a foot long and as big as a Cockatiel or Rosella and still call them Budgerigars. - - - - I maintain that their beauty lies in their diminutiveness."

Are YOU A Breeder or Aviary Owner?
If you are interested in smaller, more natural budgies after reading this article, then maybe you would also be interested in helping found a club with others of like mind? Read the follow-on page Helen's Club Dream!!

© Helen Day 2000.

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