Parakeet History: The Origin of Parakeets

It is estimated that parakeets have remained captive for more than 160 years, the longest of any companion bird species.

This is why they are considered domesticated by many bird keepers since they have been with humans for so long.

However, the history of bird keeping goes much further back than that. 

Bird keeping Through the Ages

Ancient Egyptians are credited with keeping birds, most notably Pigeons.

A royal zoo that included exotic birds was created for the first time by Queen Hatsheput (1504 – 1482 BC).

In the fifth century B.C., a court physician and naturalist in the Persian Empire wrote about talking birds that were described to him by Indian merchants.

From Egypt, bird-keeping spread to Greece and Rome.

Historians credit Alexander the Great for first describing and taming the Alexandrine parakeet.

They also credited the Greeks for popularizing parrot keeping outside of the birds’ native lands. 

Rich Romans built extensive garden aviaries, and also kept mockingbirds in the entryways of their homes as feathered doorbells to announce visitors.

The Romans are thought to have been the first bird dealers, bringing different types of birds to the British Isles and the European continent.

Until the Renaissance, bird keeping was a hobby that only the wealthy could pursue.

After canaries were introduced into Europe by Portuguese sailors in the 1500s, though, bird keeping began to take off as a hobby, although it was still confined largely to upper-class fanciers.

In the 1600s, the Dutch began breeding varieties of canaries for show.

These birds were exported to Britain, and bird keeping began to be more accessible.

At about the same time, in the British penal colony of Australia, a forger named Thomas Watling first described the parakeet’s ability to mimic human speech.

The bird he described was able to greet Watling’s employer by saying, “How do you do, Dr. White?”

In the Victorian era, bird sellers in the British Isles offered goldfinches and larks to ship captains en route to the West Indies.

These common European birds would then be traded in the islands for species found there.

What Is the Origin of Parakeets?

Now that we’ve looked at the history of bird keeping, let’s look at the background of your chosen bird, the parakeet.

Some of you may know parakeets by their more official name—budgerigar.

Whatever you call them, these small, perky parrots are considered the most popular pet bird in the world.

True Australians

Parakeets come from Australia, where they live in large communal flocks.

(These large flocks make parakeets naturally sociable birds. If you keep a single pet bird, make sure you fulfill her need for companionship by spending time with her every day.)

Many wild parakeets are found in central Australia, which is a harsh, arid land.

To cope with these extreme conditions, parakeets have adapted to survive on minimal food and water requirements.

(Notice that I say surviving and not thriving. Parakeets kept in captivity need more than seeds and water to thrive.)

The parakeet’s British name, budgerigar, is said to come from an Aboriginal phrase that means “good to eat,” although I can’t imagine eating such personable little birds.

The species’ scientific name, Melopsittacus undulatus, means “song parrot with wavy lines,” which refers to the birds’ melodic voices and the wavy bars across their backs and wings.

These wavy lines help wild parakeets camouflage themselves in the Australian grasslands so they are less visible to predators.

The Parakeet Arrives in Europe

The British naturalist John Gould Gould is credited with introducing the budgerigar to Britain.

In his introduction, he specifically mentions the ‘beautiful little warbling Grass Parakeet, which, before 1838, was so rare in the southern parts of Australia that only a single example had been sent to Europe’.

In 1838, Gould and his wife, Elizabeth, traveled from London to Australia to study the continent’s native wildlife for a series of books Gould was writing.

Although he considered parakeets to have rather dull personalities, Gould brought a pair back to Britain.

Parakeets soon became popular pets with upper-class Europeans and hundreds of thousands of them were sent on weeklong sea voyages from Australia to Britain, Belgium, and Holland.

Although many birds died in transit, those who survived proved to be surprisingly easy to breed in captivity (Gould’s brother-in-law, Charles Coxen, bred the first pair in Britain in the 1840s), and they were soon being bred across Europe by zoological gardens and aristocratic bird keepers.

One of the first pairs bred by Coxen was sold by a British bird dealer for twenty-seven pounds sterling—the equivalent of several hundred dollars today.

The Antwerp Zoo in Belgium was one of the first places where parakeets were put on display.

Parakeet breeding began in earnest in Antwerp in the 1850s, and it soon spread across Europe.

France imported one hundred thousand pairs of birds, and breeding farms were set up in France and Belgium by the end of the nineteenth century.

Despite all this breeding, parakeets were still being exported by the thousands from Australia to Europe, South Africa, South America, and the United States.

Australia finally banned the export of parakeets in 1894—a ban that is still in force.

Parakeets in America

Although they have been kept as pets in America for years, parakeets began their current reign of popularity in the United States in the 1950s.

According to a national pet owners survey, the number of birds owned as a pet by households in the United States reached 20.6 million in 2017.

They are the most widely kept pet parrot in the world, with some five million pet and show birds in Great Britain alone.

English and American Parakeets

In your search for the perfect pet parakeet, you may have noticed that there are two types of parakeets: English and American.

The differences between the two birds are small but noticeable.

English budgerigars (or budgies) tend to be larger, more majestic, and less active, while American parakeets are smaller, livelier, and more likely to be found in most pet stores.

American breeders tend to raise more American than English parakeets because the demand for the American variety is greater.

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