Budgies: History, Habitat, Behaviour, Classification, Feeding, and Breeding

Budgies of different color outside sitting on a perch

It’s amazing how much personality can be packed into such a small bird!

The colorful budgies, also called parakeets, are playful, energetic, entertaining, love food, easy to train, and can rival most parrots in terms of talking ability.

They are considered the most popular pet bird in the World, but they are not always thought of as parrots due to their small size. But they are.

Budgies History

Parrots form a very large order of birds known as the Psittaciformes, which contains approximately 398 bird species in 92 genera.

They are found mostly in tropical and subtropical regions.

There are two families within the order: the Cacatuidae, or cockatoos, and the Psittacidae, or the parrots.

Parrots can be classified as either families or orders.

It is believed by some scientists that there should be a third family (the Loriidae) which contains just the lorikeets and lories.

Budgies are known by many names. The scientific name for this little Australian parrot is Melopsittacus undulatus

The term “Australian shell parakeet” is used by some historical references.

About fifty years ago, a more unusual name “budgerigar” began to appear often in articles and books about pet birds.

Even though this name sounded strange at first, its shortened form “budgie” was a lot easier to pronounce.

Although many people still identify this bird as the parakeet, this article uses the term budgie.

Truly, budgie can be classified as a parakeet but not as the only one.

The term parakeet also applies to any member of the Psittacidae family who is relatively small, slender, and with a long, pointed tail.

In Australia alone, more than two dozen species fit under the general term parakeet.

Many of the South American, Mexican, and Central American conures (also parrots) could be called parakeets based on their shape and size.

Several species of very long-tailed, bright-green little parrots in Africa and southern Asia are also commonly known as parakeets.

You may know them as ‘Budgies’, but did you know the common name is derived from a Gamilaraay Aboriginal language name ‘Betcherrygah’, which is thought to mean ‘good food’?

It’s however unclear whether this means the bird itself is good for eating, or whether their seed-seeking migrations led Gamilaraay to places of rainfall and abundant food.

Now let’s get to know something more about the most popular parakeet of all, “the budgie”

Budgies Spread to Europe and America

The first Australian birds made their way to England on the ships of Captain James Cook, an English explorer who traveled to the eastern coast of Australia in the 1770s.

Naturalists and others traveling with Cook collected a few birds and other animals and brought them back to Europe.

These extremely rare specimens drew lots of interest from British and other European scientists, who named them according to the recently formulated rules of Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist who revolutionized taxonomy (the naming and classification of plants and animals).

Based on travelers’ descriptions of small green and yellow birds found in New South Wales on the southeastern coast of Australia, British naturalist George Shaw named the budgie Psittacus undulatus—a parrot (all parrots were placed in the genus Psittacus) with fine wavy lines over the back and nape of the neck.

The first live budgies were brought to England in 1838 by painter John Gould, who not only visited Australia but also had family contacts there.

Gould put budgies in a new genus, Melopsittacus (singing parrot), because of their melodious whistles or warbles.

This gave us the current name Melopsittacus undulatus. Gould and his friends and business associates soon were importing more budgies into England and elsewhere in Europe, where they found ready buyers among upper-class hobbyists willing to exchange gold for these new additions to their cages and aviaries.

Budgies caused a sensation among fanciers wanting rare, expensive animals for their collections, and it wasn’t long before budgies were being bred in high numbers in captivity.

Imports continued into Europe until 1894 when Australia passed regulations forbidding further exportation.

Breeding budgies became a very profitable business in Holland, France, Belgium, and Germany.

These are countries that long had traditions of commercially raising many types of unique pets.

Budgies commanded high prices, and if you were a Duke or banker or had similar stature, you had to have a pair to keep up with your friends.

When an all-yellow budgie mutation appeared in Belgium in 1875, followed by blue mutations in the early 1880s, interest in these birds grew, and prices for the mutations often reached well into three figures.

The bluebirds proved especially popular in Japan after they were imported by a Japanese prince in 1925.

Budgies had reached the United States by the late 1920s. This was where they became quite popular.

Soon every home had to have a little cage with a budgie (preferably all blue or all yellow) sitting in it.

Books about how to care for budgies were published, budgies appeared in print ads, and talking budgies even appeared on radio shows.

They became even more popular in the 1950s when they competed with canaries as the most popular pet birds.

Today, budgies can be found in more than twenty color mutations, and perhaps as many as one hundred varieties are widely available to breeders and pet bird owners, although most of those seen in pet shops are either yellow, green, blue, white, or green and yellow (as in the wild).

Budgies Habitat

Budgies are strictly Australian birds. They gather in large flocks of dozens to thousands of birds and can be found almost anywhere in the dry interior plains of Australia and on the Indian Ocean shores of the continent.

Here, they don’t stay in one place much as they are nomadic and they flock around in an attempt to find spots with plenty of food and water.

They typically prefer open habitats like grasslands.

These birds do not tolerate even moderately wet habitats.

Budgies occasionally appear in Tasmania, but those are thought to be escaped pets and not natural populations.

Budgies truly are birds of deserts; extremely arid plains; and open, dry savannas with only sparse vegetation.

Because budgies are nomadic, it is difficult to pin down where any group of birds might be at any time of the year.

The flocks move around constantly, following the rains; water is rare and rains are unpredictable, so grasses and other foods may not appear in one specific spot for several years.

Flocks of thousands of birds may descend on shallow lakes that appear with annual rains.

There they spend several weeks feeding on new grass and breeding.

As is true for many other desert birds, the population numbers may rise and fall depending on the weather.

For example, after many years of drought, a high percentage of budgies die, and the species may become relatively uncommon in an area, but the next extended period of rainfall and subsequent breeding season quickly return the species to normal numbers.

Scientific Classification

Although often called a parakeet, the budgerigar, or budgie, this bird also has a scientific name that is standard among breeders, ornithologists, and pet owners around the world:

Melopsittacus undulatus.

Class: Aves

Order: Psittaciformes

Family: Psittacidae

Genus: Melopsittacus

Species: undulatus

Budgies Appearance

The wild budgie is a small, slender parrot with a pointed tail, pointed wings, and a small beak.

A wild budgie usually measures seven-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half inches long overall, with three-and-a-half to four-inch tail feathers (roughly half its overall length).

Each wing is approximately four inches long, so the wingspan is less than a foot.

When compared to the American budgies you are likely to find in pet stores, wild budgies are much smaller but similar in structure.

English budgies have been bred for competitive showing and are 2-3 inches longer than American budgies.

English budgies are easily identified by their large heads, which are round and bulging, rather than small and tapered. 

Budgies can turn their heads 180 degrees so they can reach the important oil gland (the uropygial gland) at the base of the tail; they spread the oil over their feathers to make them waterproof.

Even when it’s raining or light bathing, a wet budgie retains some dry plumage.

Its beak is small and covered with feathers that can be fluffed out to enclose almost all of it except for the tip.

Its upper beak is longer than its lower beak and sharply pointed; the lower beak ends in a squarish tip.

The tip of the lower beak fits against ridges in the upper beak that allow the budgie’s thick, specialized tongue to roll an individual seed between the two parts of the beak until the seed’s outer coating is split and rolled off, which hulls the seed before it is passed into the mouth and then down to the stomach.

The nostrils are located above a wide area of featherless skin.

A budgie cere can vary in color depending on its age and gender.

A budgie’s feet are large and have four unequal-sized toes with long, sharp nails.

The budgie’s toes form an X (a pattern known as zygodactylous, common among all parrots), which allows it to firmly grasp both large and small perches.

Since the legs are short and mostly hidden under the feathers, this gives the budgie a characteristic waddling walk.

In the wild, budgies are primarily bright green, with yellow heads and throats, and black feather markings (not the variety of colors you’d find in a pet shop).

The limited coloration of wild budgies allows them to blend in with the soil and grass when they feed.

A wild adult budgie is a bright green from the upper chest to under the tail and on the rump (the part of the body above the base of the tail).

The head, back, and neck are bright yellow.

There are many fine, horizontal black lines along the nape of the neck and the back of the head, as well as black spots and crescents on the back of the body.

On each side of the throat, three large black spots are visible on the bright yellow face.

A narrow band of pinkish to blueish featherless skin surrounds the eyes, which are relatively small and have white irises.

As mentioned, the budgies you see in a pet store may look quite different from the wild birds.

Pets can be all yellow or all green, different shades of green or blue, or white, and the black markings may be faint or even nonexistent.

Breeders have carefully and intentionally bred for these color varieties, which first appeared naturally as genetic mutations in pet birds; you’ll never find them in nature.

If a color mutation appeared in a wild budgie, the bird would stick out like a sore thumb in a flock of all green and yellow budgies and would attract predators.

Budgies Behaviour

Budgerigars typically drink during the morning, consuming up to 5.5% of their body weight daily! But living in an arid environment they’re very ‘water hardy’.

If there’s no standing water nearby, they’ll drink early morning dew and ‘bathe’ in wet grass.

A Budgerigar’s beak and flexible tongue are perfectly suited to its granivorous diet.

The bird eats seeds, grains, and nuts from native herbs and grasses.

Foraging on the ground, they sometimes climb tussocks to strip plants. They then de-husk the seeds and swallow them whole or broken.

After drinking and eating, they seek shade in the middle of the day.

While resting, budgies take great care in preening each other. A highly social bird, they call to each other constantly with a distinctive ‘chirping’ noise.

Budgerigars are monogamous and mate for life. Breeding occurs at any time of the year, typically after rain.

The nests, sometimes within meters of each other, are made by lining existing cavities of tree trunks, branches, logs, and even old fence posts!

Here the female will lay four to eight eggs.

The mother incubates the eggs, which hatch after 18 days; the father forages and feeds the chicks, which will leave the nest after another 35 days.

Budgies Personality

Generally, budgies are very accepting of humans and other birds. However, they should not be housed with a bird other than another budgerigar.

Also, care should be exercised when placing two budgies together, as they can do serious harm to one another if they do not get along.

Although they are relatively easy to tame, pet bird lovers often speak about the differences in personality of each bird.

Each Budgie has its own unique ideas about how much it would like to be handled, which toys are its favorites, and even what music it loves or is indifferent to.

Budgies Feeding

In nature, budgies feed on ripe and ripening seeds of a great array of grasses, especially the spinifex and Mitchell grasses that are common to the dry interior of Australia.

But budgies also eat seeds of shrubby eucalyptus species and, when necessary, will eat wheat and other cultivated crops.

Wild budgies will likely eat almost anything green or seedy if more traditional foods are not available.

Like most desert parrots, budgies are most active for an hour or less after sunrise and then for another hour or so before sunset when temperatures are relatively low.

Although they can survive temperatures over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit for a while, they are stressed by such extremes and do much better in ranges from the upper sixties to the low eighties.

When winter comes, budgies often move to warmer climates, although they can tolerate temperatures as low as the mid-forties.

Budgies Breeding

The unpredictability of food and water in the wild dictates budgies’ breeding habits.

Compared with other parrots, their young leave the nest and mature early, as an adaptation for survival; if the adult birds had to incubate the eggs and feed the chicks for months instead of weeks, the water and grasses would probably disappear before the nestlings could fly.

Wild budgies nest primarily during the periods when rains and food are most likely to be abundant. However, nesting seasons are unpredictable.

Birds from the northern part of the range often breed at a different time from those in the south because climate patterns in Australia usually produce rains at different times in these areas.

Unlike many other nomadic Australian parrots, budgies rarely approach the eastern coast during the winter, so they are rarely found in major Australian cities.

Like almost all other parrots, budgies lay their white eggs in a hole in a rotting branch or tree trunk and don’t line the nest with straw or feathers.

And, as is true of other parrots (but not cockatoos), the male feeds the female during nesting, and she rarely leaves the nest to look for food until the chicks are fairly grown and able to maintain their body temperatures.

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