Thursday 22 August 2019

Budgies can be great pets but they do need exercise!

Pete Wedderburn Animal Doctor

IF YOU'RE looking for a low-cost, friendly, easy-to-keep pet, small birds like budgies can be a good option. They are surprisingly good companions for humans. Studies have shown that elderly people living alone enjoy better physical and psychological health if they have a pet, and this beneficial effect is as strong if they own a budgie as a dog or a cat.

Budgies are correctly called Budgerigars: someone told me that the origin of the name is an Australian Aboriginal word meaning "tasty snack" but I'm not sure that I believe them. It is true, however, that Budgies originate from Australia. They're still commonly found as wild birds in the Australian Bush, flying around in colourful, noisy flocks.

When you see (and hear) the little birds enjoying life in the wild, it makes you realise the value of keeping them in pairs or small groups when they're kept as pets. They're social creatures and they love the joy of fluttering close to their companions, twittering loudly to each other.

Early visitors to Australia - back in the mid-nineteenth century - brought budgies back to Europe as pets, and they've continued to be popular ever since. They're tiny birds, weighing only around 40 grams (less than two ounces). To put this into context, a typical cat weighs the same as around a hundred budgies, and a large Labrador of 40kg is the equivalent of a thousand.

Most budgies live for five to ten years, but rare individuals can live for longer: I knew one bird that lived to be seventeen. Sadly, many budgies have shorter lives than their potential because of poor living conditions. They are often fed on high fat diets and they're not given enough exercise. Like humans, budgies suffer from the abundance of resources in the western world, and obesity is a serious problem.

The most remarkable aspect of budgies is their personalities. This may seem unlikely to readers who have never owned a budgie, but I know this from my own experience. We have kept two budgies in our home for the past decade, and they have often surprised me with the strength of their little characters.

Sadly, our oldest bird has just passed away. Cosmic was eight years old, and he lived with his female companion, Sheila, in a large cage in our living room. He had been reared by hand, and he genuinely seemed to enjoy the company of humans.

We regularly allowed him out of his cage to fly around, after checking that all potential budgie hazards had been removed. (No dogs or cats, no open windows, no fans, no open chimneys).

Cosmic used to enjoy landing on people's shoulders and heads, perching there while he twittered his budgie song. He seemed to know when he had taken enough exercise: he flew back into his cage when he decided the time was right.

The birds also used their voices to communicate with us when they were in their cage. When I came downstairs in the morning, they would greet me with a cacophony of chirrups, not shutting up until I topped up their seed tray. And as we unpacked the groceries, they'd start up a chorus of twittering until we gave them a grape, a piece of banana or a slice of apple.

Male budgies, in particular, can be taught to speak human words, in the same way as parrots. One American bird called Puck held the world record for the largest vocabulary of any bird, at 1,728 words, when he died in 1994. Budgies can also be taught to carry out simple tricks, using food treats. I've seen budgies who can do all sorts of activities on command, from ringing a bell, to climbing a ladder, to waving a wing.

We never taught Cosmic to do tricks: he lived his life at his own pace in a large cage, enjoying Sheila's company. The two birds used to snuggle up beside each other on the perch: Sheila rested her head on Cosmic's shoulder. They used to look like an affectionate human couple on a park bench: if a pair of birds could be said to be happy together, that was Cosmic and Sheila.

Cosmic's end came quickly. Last Sunday morning, he wasn't on his perch when I came downstairs in the morning. Instead, he was standing on the floor of the cage, with his head drooping. When I examined him, I could find no specific signs of illness, but it was obvious that he wasn't himself. I took him out of the big cage, putting him into a smaller "hospital" cage instead, beside a heater to keep him warm. He deteriorated during the day, becoming even weaker. There was something seriously wrong with him: at his age, internal disease like cancer is common.

Our whole family was in the room that evening when Cosmic died. It was strange. Sheila was in the big cage, beside him, and she had been quiet all day. All of a sudden, she started chirruping loudly, almost like an alarm of some kind. We went over to look, and Cosmic had fallen onto his side. He took a couple of final gasps, then it was over. As soon as he stopped moving, Sheila went very quiet.

We haven't had time to think about a new companion for Sheila, but in due course, it will the best thing for her. Budgies love company. We know that, one day, Sheila will learn to enjoy resting her head against a new cage mate's shoulder.

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