Title - The Long And The Short Of It
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Budgerigar Longevity: The Challenge
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First of three aviary/ breeder longevity articlesHere on the Cobber Budgies website, I'm concentrating on writing about those aspects of budgie keeping in which I take a personal interest and have gained knowledge or skill. One of those areas is life expectancy, which is a rather neglected subject. The reason for its neglect will be well known to some readers, and on this page I grasp the nettle! The pages which follow, too, give the status quo a good shaking! How can any bird lover accept the status quo while, according to a writer in 'Budgerigar World' magazine, avian vets are telling us that 75% of premature bird deaths are preventable?

Through breeding from unrelated birds and being determined to manage the aviary to the highest standard, I have been able to achieve a life span average for my own budgies of 9 years and 2 months. Anyone can do this if they are able to start out with reasonably healthy birds and really apply themselves to the long but satisfying process of becoming a skilled budgie keeper. The birds themselves are the teachers, but you must really 'listen' to them, determined to gain from every experience. The most difficult individuals are the ones who can advance your skills the most, so hang on to them instead of chickening out and passing them on to someone else!

My Statistic
The budgies behind my statistic are the nineteen I bred and retained between 1985 and 1988. Their inclusion starts at fledging, but the earliest death occurred at 648 days, from rectal prolapse with a genetic cause. The other two early deaths were caused by the same deleterious, (harmful), inherited factor. Excluding these losses, the birds tended to live for around 10 years. At the time of writing, two of the 1988 birds are still alive, so the statistic above is not yet set in concrete. The nineteen were not exhibition birds, but very mixed, smaller budgies, from three completely unrelated families. They were not all super-tough specimens, but rather included real tough-as-an-old-boot types, along with the defective birds and 'inbetweeners'. The record holder is a cock of 15 years who is still alive today, closely followed by a slightly younger brother - also still alive - and then by a same age brother who sadly died in December 2002. A breeding hen named Violet also scored a particularly good age.

Ivy, aged 11My Oldest Bought In Budgie
A hen named Ivy, bought from a very small breeding set-up in Accrington, Lancashire, reached her 13th birthday. She is pictured here aged 11. When I bought her, there was, interestingly enough, a healthy, thirteen year old hen in the little flight. This breeder obviously had the right management, together with a selective and responsible approach to breeding, and I will return to her method again in the final article. I will also discuss the management practices that commonly cut birds' lives short, and suggest better methods.

Was it longevity that made me a budgie fan?
The inspiration behind my very first, childhood budgie, was a charming, fun-loving individual who also reached the impressive age of 15 years. This was the much loved Joey, pet of my father's family half a century ago. His life was longer than average, no doubt, but I have personally met other people whose pet budgerigars of long ago lived to be 15. At one time, it was not uncommon for pets to reach this age. This brings me to the interesting question as to whether, if Joey had died aged 3, after a year of sickness, my parents would ever have encouraged me to keep budgies?

My own first two birds - house pets hatched in 1964/5 - lived to be 9 years 5½ months, and 10 years 9 months respectively, strengthening the positive impression of budgie life imparted by the almost legendary Joey. After that, the negative experiences of early deaths began, following the purchase of a few B.S. rung birds and the building of an aviary. With hindsight, I can see that inadequate aviary management may have claimed some lives, as, like many people, I regarded the aviary as an ideal environment for birds and was blissfully unaware that my budgerigars might be having problems there.

The Importance Of Satisfactory Life Span
Today, many budgerigars are born without the capacity to live long lives and to remain in robust health, so is it surprising that they are a much less popular choice of pet than they used to be? And how many people become budgie breeders without the inspiration of a thoroughly satisfactory pet experience? Budgerigar breeders need to wake up to the importance of satisfactory life span to the pet owner, if the hobby is to be rescued from decline.

Collected Budgerigar Life Span Figures

THE WORLD LONGEVITY RECORD
29 YEARS 2 MONTHS [1]

A Previous World Longevity Record, published circa 1980, from memory
28 YEARS 4 MONTHS [1b]

10 YEARS
average for birds kept at Waltham Research Centre, England [2]

6.5 YEARS
14 YEARS
average and maximum for pets, 'Which?' magazine survey, 1976 or '77

8 YEARS
average for pets, Budgerigar Society Pet Survey
[3]

9.2 YEARS
15 YEARS

average and maximum for my own bred birds (details above)

6 YEARS
13.2 YEARS
average and maximum for thirteen birds I bought in the 1980's

2.09 YEARS
- average for 3000 breeders' birds sent for autopsy [3]

Gaby Schulemann's bird, named Kiki [4]
17 YEARS 2 MONTHS

References:
1 The New Guinness Book of Records 1995, Guinness Publishing
The record bird is identified as Charlie, who lived from April 1948 to June 20th 1977. He was owned by J. Dinsey of Stonebridge, London, UK.
1b Guinness Book of Records round about 1980. I believe this record bird was a hen from London, UK.
2 Waltham (Connected with Pedigree Masterfoods and Trill) This site used to explain that Waltham's own life span figure was derived from their own birds, but after the site was updated, specific reference to this fact was lost.
3 The Budgerigar Society Research Digest, 1979 - 1981 published by The Budgerigar Society.
4 Kiki has his own webpage on his owner's site.

Figuring It Out
The contrasts in the above table are surely quite startling, and if you have been half asleep up to this point, I hope they have woken you up!

If the longevity records can be believed, the budgerigar has an amazing capacity for long life which is seldom realized.

At the other extreme, we have the sad figure of just 2.09 years average for breeders' birds. This figure was a spin off from research undertaken for The Budgerigar Society, with the admirable aim of finding solutions to the bird's health problems. Most of the work consisted of autopsies on dead birds posted to the lab by members. Here is the Nettle That Needs Grasping which I forewarned you about, for while it was clear from the research that a great many exhibition budgerigars in breeders' establishments were dying within the first few years of life (a very serious matter in itself), this would not have been the whole story.

Like breeders of pet budgerigars, most of these people believe in unloading any older birds on to other people or on to the trade, in order to "keep the stud young" and therefore productive. 'Retired' birds take up space. In all probability, an unacknowledged conflict of interests exists between, on the one hand, the pet owner, who wants his or her bird to live to a grand old age, and, on the other hand, the typical breeder, who wants birds to conveniently disappear from the age of 3 or 4 years! The public, out of habit and ignorance of the situation, expect to buy pet budgies at prices that are unlikely to cover the cost of even moderately good housing and husbandry.

While society takes a grim view of those who ditch elderly dogs or cats without pressing personal reasons, the advice to "get rid of all your old birds" has appeared in various publications from time to time, and the same advice has been given to me personally by an aviary owner. Ageing birds from breeders of every description probably end up in the aviaries of beginners (if they survive sale and resale) where they must often be the cause of disappointment and grief. It is not an admirable way to carry on.

This is a farming attitude, appropriate only for those whose livelihood depends upon the efficient production of vital commodities. Budgerigars are pets. Even exhibition budgerigars are no more, and no less than pets. I here put forward the argument that they are entitled to the same respect and loyalty as larger, more expensive pets. For those readers who are not inclined to sentiment, I will list the practical benefits of older birds below.

The Value Of Old Budgies In The Birdroom

  1. Calming influence: - Old budgies are wise. They have seen it all before, and are disinclined to get stressed up about things. A proportion of older birds may help keep the younger ones from panicking or getting sick from stress.
  2. Gentle companionship: - Depending on individual temperament, older birds can be the ideal companions for convalescing budgies or birds in quarantine. They will show the other bird the feeders and help it to settle, so preventing stress induced disease. The most laid back of them are also invaluable as companions for birds on a trip to the vet.
  3. Living alarm system: - Being a little more vulnerable than youthful birds to the effects of draughts and other adverse factors, they can provide an early warning system that will help keep your whole flock / stud safe. - Should the window be shut? - Just look at old Polly!
  4. Worry Stoppers: - The oldies can be excellent worry stoppers too e.g. I never got stressed up about the possibility of worms when I had numerous, plump nine year olds in the flight. Their health told me all was well!
  5. Window on Genetics: - Unless you keep an adequate number of your own birds into old age, you will never know what diseases your strains are prone to develop later on. You may be breeding budgies most of whom become arthritic or develop cancers in middle age, but you will be ignorant of this. The retention of old birds reveals what your stock is really made of.

Personally, I am inclined to sentiment concerning older birds! A ten year old has shared a much more significant slice of my life than a mere two year old, and he or she has become part of my personal history. Thinking of each old budgie in turn, it is hard to imagine what life would have been like without that individual. Each oldie has taught me something unique about the species and about how better to care for birds.

Helen Day.

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© Copyright Helen Day, first published in October 2000;
figures updated May 2003.