What is it about budgies?
They’re baleful-eyed escape artists. But already infatuated faneiers have installed a million of these pocket-sized parrots in split-level cages across the land, and they may soon make the doir man’s second-best friend
By McKenzie Porter
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN SEBF.RT
^ Hemmed in by birds, books, cages and a few of the bird toys that make cage life liveable, Muriel Moorehouse swots budgie lore. She is dietician for a company that distributes budgies and accessories.
B ut a 1 re a d v i n fat u a te 1
installed a million
pocket-sized parrots in split-level cages across the land, and they may
soon make the doir man’s
lb very fifth home in Canada. Great Britain and the United States is inhabited today by a living bauble known as the budgerigar. It's a midget parrot endowed with the colors ot a harlequin, the agility of an acrobat and the squeaky human accents of the ventriloquists' smaller dolls. These attributes have made the budgerigar the most ubiquitous caged bird in the history of aviculture.
Retailing for between seven and fifteen dollars a specimen at pet stores, department stores, chain variety stores, hardware stores, drug stores, cobblers’ shops and even at establishments selling home-brewed - beer supplies, the budgerigar now outnumbers the old-fashioned canary by ten to one and its big outmoded cousins the macaw, lorikeet and cockatoo by hundreds to one.
Since the war the budgerigar population has increase'll from five thousand to one million in Canada, from one million to ten million in Great Britain and from two million to sixteen million in the United States. Buell Culver, executive director of the U.S. Pet Birds' Institute, predicts that within a decade the budgerigar will "eclipse" the dog as man's favorite species of domestic livestock.
One reason for the growing taste for budgerigars is the trend toward apartment dwelling. Many landlords who prohibit fourlegged pets close their eyes to a bird. Another explanation of the budgerigar's popularity lies in the fact that it combines the droll characteristics of the standard parrot with the manageable dimensions of the canary.
Although it is just as tiny as the canary the budgerigar is not so sweet. Indeed it radiates some of the beaky, beady balefulness of the illustrious Duke of Wellington. About its arrogance, however, there is an aura of ruin. Even when it is performing tricks the budgerigar never loses the sort of expression the Iron Duke might have worn if he'd been captured by the Spaniards and forced into the uniform of a bullfighter.
Beneath the budgerigar’s stony martial countenance is a necklace of polka dots in many vivid hues. The rest of its plumage grows in jasper, topaz and beryl, or in myrtle. henna and madder, or in any other combination of the most torrid greens, yellows and blues. It spends most of its time standing statuesquely on its perch, as if petrified by humiliation. Then, to get a bit of exercise, it will suddenly begin to tumble irritably on miniature trapezes and treadmills.
Occasionally it raises its inbred, overgrown head in an agony of boredom and screeches such arcontinued on page 35
What is it about budgies?
Continued from page 19
“A Japanese prince paid $1,500 for one pair of budgerigars at an English sale in the Twenties”
resting ejaculations as "Wake Up England!” "Gettum Outta Here!” or "Don't, Charlie, Don't!”
Looking down from the avian Nirvana the original budgerigars must be astonished to sec what a Punchinello man has made of their children’s children. Until 1X40, when a thoughtless Englishman took a caged cock and hen back to England, the budgerigar was a fleet, hardy creature ranging the grasslands of tropical Australia in search of millet seed. It was clad entirely in a camouflage of becoming green. Only the most eagle-eyed of the aborigines could see it and only the most nimble and crafty could trap it. When they were successful the natives roasted the budgerigar on skewers and called it hetcherrygah, meaning "good food."
But nobody bothers now to trap the wild Australian budgerigar. The Australians themselves import from England the adulterated tame variety. It was the English aviculturists who, by mating the sports and freaks that sprang from early cagelings, multiplied the budgerigar's range of colors and transformed a comely nomad into a captive clown.
By the middle 1920s the budgerigar was so showy that a Japanese prince paid fifteen hundred dollars in England lor one pair of birds. Today many a budgerigar carries in its iridescent feathers almost every color but red. Having profited most from the birds of the rarest shades the breeders are now working toward the first scarlet budgerigar as feverishly as horticulturists arc working toward the first blue rose.
Not content with altering the budgerigar's appearance, the multi-milliondollar industry it supports persistently corrupts, in promotional literature, the translation of its native name. For commercial reasons the industry advances the specious claim that hetcherrygah means "pretty bird.”
This prevarication may be justified,
however, by the value of the human interests at stake. Although some are imported from Britain and the United States the majority of the Canadian budgerigars are native born. Last year nine hundred Canadian breeders, operating in urban basements and rural hencoops, hatched one hundred thousand budgerigars. Among the rank-and-file breeders is Mrs. T. W. Rhind, a tall, grey-haired, watchful Scot who, for seventeen years, has supported an invalid husband by keeping for sale a flock of four hundred budgerigars in the cellar of an old-fashioned West Toronto house.
A bigger breeder is Mrs. H. T. Arn. the willowy, pretty, young wife of a Chatham, Ont., undertaker. Mrs. Arn. despite what she calls "neighbor trouble." manages to raise and sell a thousand budgerigars a year.
One of the most productive breeders in Canada is Bill Jones, of Aylmer, Ont., who keeps a stock of three to four thousand budgerigars in the coops of an old chicken farm. From his mating pairs Jones draws some five thousand fledglings a year. A decade ago Jones, a courtly. canny, middle-aged man well versed in Mendel's theories of hybridization, was running a bowling alley in Aylmer. As a public attraction he kept a few canaries. Then he started selling them. When budgerigar sales began to outstrip canary sales after the war Jones switched to the former. Within a couple of years his budgerigar business boomed to such an extent that he had to give up the bowling alley.
Like most of the major Canadian breeders Jones imports prize - winning cocks and hens from England for between one hundred and five hundred dollars apiece. The English birds are necessary to profitable reproduction in this country because they are larger and more robust than the Canadian-born. The superiority of the English bird stems from the fact that it is raised in big,
open-air, long-flight aviaries and mates naturally in the spring.
In Canada, where the winters are too cold for unglazed aviaries, budgerigars are housed all the year round in heated basements or barns. As a result they think it is spring all the time and mate endlessly. Lhe quality of their progeny, however, decreases in each successive clutch of four or five eggs. The chicks get smaller and smaller until they are reduced to unsalable dimensions. Jones attributes his success to constant infusions of British budgerigar blood and his refusal to seat hens on more than two clutches of eggs a year. Many Canadian breeders, he says, "are out for a fast buck." They permit a hen to mate and bring up chicks so continuously that "in the end she kills herself.” Such breeders, says Jones, eventually ruin their own business because their chicks become so tiny that the wholesalers stop buying them.
The biggest wholesaler of budgerigars in this country is VioBin (Canada) I Id., a pet-supply company at St. Thomas, Ont. VioBin, in which both Americans and Canadians hold stock, started in Montreal in the late 1930s as a stiles agency for animal and poultry food supplements and drifted into canary seed as a side line. After the war VioBin found that feed for budgerigars was becoming one of its most profitable lines.
VioBin moved to St. Thomas in 1947 and set up shop in a former aircraft hangar. There were half a dozen employees. Today, largely on the proceeds of bird seed, VioBin has built itself a new warehouse full of automatic packing machines, increased its St. Thomas payroll to one hundred and fifty, opened branches in Vancouver and Toronto and put a score of salesmen on the road from Newfoundland to British Columbia.
Until eight years ago most breeders sold their birds directly to retailers and pet lovers. Then VioBin built a big modern aviary and established itself as a budgerigar wholesaler. VioBin buys on contract the entire output of scores of breeders. It pays the breeders four to six dollars a bird and sells to the retailers for a dollar more. Each bird is banded with a breeder's mark which enables its pedigree to be traced. Today VioBin claims that it is buying eighty percent of all the budgerigars hatched in Canada and that its insistence on pedigreed birds has done much to improve the national stock.
The company dispatches budgerigars by truck, rail and aircraft to retailers from coast to coast. In quiet times retailers sell VioBin birds for as little as eight dollars each. At Christmas, Easter and Mother's Day prices sometimes rise to fifteen dollars each. According to Harry Braiden, sales manager of VioBin, the year-round retail price of his company's birds is between seven and ten dollars.
Among the more unusual retailers ol budgerigars are shoemakers and vendors of home-brewed-beer supplies. Both got into the business via a logical if obscure sequence of events. Cobblers began by selling lumps of leather, then dog collars, then dog food, then bird seed, and finally budgerigars. Home-brew merchants were coaxed into the trade by malt and hops salesmen who carried bird seed as a side line and eventually began taking orders for budgerigars.
Although a single budgerigar may live healthily on only three and a half dollars worth of seed a year its mass consumption means a hefty turnover. Last year Canada's one million budgerigars ate six thousand tons of millet, some of it imported from Turkey, Algeria and
Indonesia. In addition to this staple each bird eats on an average a thirty-five-cent monthly "treat," a tiny cake compounded of special richer seeds known as spray millet. This is now grown largely in southwestern Ontario by farmers who've latched onto the commercial importance of the budgerigar’s epicurean palate. But it is grown under difficulties, Spray-millet crops create such a furore of gustatory excitement among wild Canadian birds that farmers can keep them off only with expensive around-the-clock fireworks explosions, operated by a timing mechanism. I hough neighbors sometimes object, the heavy thuds must be endured in the interests of trade. Spray millet brought total sales of Canadian budgie food to nearly five million dollars last year. Since budgerigars are susceptible to chills and stomach troubles they consume in addition thousands of dollars worth of sulpha drugs, anti-biotics, vitamins, laxatives and plumage conditioners. Also on sale are cage-bottom gravels impregnated with chlorophyll, and plastic spray bottles that make the bird smell like a beautiful Polish spy. Nor does the budgerigar's strain on the human economy stop at the demand for medicines and deodorants. Some birdcage factories—producing units ranging from a dollar-and-a-q*rarter carrying cage to a sevcnty-dollar permanent cage—are now working three shifts daily.
Most of the cages come from England, the U. S., Germany and Japan, in silver or gold chrome and in many colored enamels, daffodil yellow, ebony black, carnation pink and sky blue being the most popular. They come in every symmetrical and eccentric variation of the cube, sphere, hemisphere and cylinder. One of the bigger cylindrical jobs contains as a perch a large piece of bleached driftwood which the manufacturers describe as “the Manzanita Tree.” The naked, contorted nature of this bit of wood blends in well with the great tropical motif which has overtaken contemporary five-and-ten store artware. Cages shaped like pagodas, grass huts and jungle temples are selling well, for example, because they match reading lamps supported on the heads of Geisha girls, wall plaques of Hindu sacrifice dancers, busts of Mau Mau virgins, glazed earthenware reproductions of rampant tigers and grotesque specimens of the cactus plant. The costliest cages, each sporting its own little chimney, are usually tagged as Duplexes, Semis, Cape Cod Cottages or Ranch-Type Bungalows. One of the latter, the Sprawling Rancher, retailing at sixty-five dollars, is equipped with a name plate, an outdoor swimming pool, and a lawn decked with little tables, chairs and umbrellas. For the diversion of the budgerigar
and its owner hundreds of further accessories are available. The simple perch has given place to swings, merry-gorounds, slides and treadmills, the latter being described — to disassociate them from medieval torture—as ferris wheels. As the budgerigar is fascinated by its own image, and by noises it cannot imitate, many such appliances are fitted with mirrors and bells. Thus, for between a quarter and a dollar, the budgerigar fancier may buy his pet a Ladder with Mirror and Bell, a Birdie Step Slide with Mirror and Bell in Loop, a Hanging Bell Mirror, a Budgie Pal Mirror, a Bell Dangler, a Mirror Tumble Toy. a Double Arm Swing with Wheel or the significantly if unfortunately named Ball. Chain and Bell. The average budgerigar weighs only two ounces yet a perch connected with a miniature lever and piston results in curious mechanical reactions whenever the bird alights on a particular contraption. The Mirro-Toot, for example, honks like a motor horn each time the budgerigar is overcome by his Narcissus complex. The Suction Perch Double Vanity embodies shutters which open to uncover a mirror when the bird touches down and close discreetly as it takes off. The Birdie Cuckoo Clock functions in traditional style, and the Princess Sprayer squirts a jet of scent over the budgerigar whenever he lands by his seed cup. Budgerigar owners who like their birds to have a good time buy the Roulette Game or Budgie Pintable. A bird perching on one of these shoots a small ball toward a group of holes. Other owners buy their birds a human carnival game called Test Your Strength. If the budgerigar comes down with a big enough thump on one of these it’ll shoot a striker to the top of a column and ring a triumphant gong. Many modern budgerigars can scarcely move without skidding on their rumps down a chute, or being whirled dizzily around on a joy wheel, or setting off innumerable pings, toots, whistles and clangs every time they wish to feed. It is understandable therefore that they appreciate the miniature human figures that may be bought for insertion into their cages. These figures, representing policemen, parsons, aldermen, butlers and other dignified types have rounded weighted bottoms which make them right themselves each time they are knocked over. A typical budgerigar will spend hours slapping them around its cage with its wings or rat-tat-tatting at their noses with its beak. Because the Irish have a reputation for taking punishment and coming up cheerfully for more, the generic name for all such budgerigar sparring partners is The Kelly. To speed up the bouts, the petsupplies industry is now producing a slippery item called Kelly on Wheels. Most budgerigar owners, however, like to see their bird doing tricks outside the cage. Cessa Feyerabend, a noted budgerigar trainer working out of Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, has taught birds to walk a tight-rope, scale a window cord, walk through a tunnel of books, open a match box and ride around in clockwork cars and electric trains fitted with little perches. Feyerabend’s biggest triumph is the Budgerigar Circus, in which a whole troupe of birds is employed. The show opens with two budgerigars sitting on the extremities of a see-saw while a third walks backwards and forwards between them, tilting them up and down. Next comes a budgerigar which lies on its back and rolls a little celluloid ball in its claws. Then a fifth budgerigar, using a chain and pulley, hauls up to a table
a tiny pail of food. Rising to a climax the show next features two budgerigars on a high-wire, one with a parasol, the other with a balancing rod in its beak. The grand finale consists of all the birds doing their act simultaneously while one star performer shoots off a little cannon and another hoists a flag. Meanwhile the ovner may play on the piano The Star Spangled Banner.
The secret of training budgerigars is revealed in a pet-store booklet written by a U. S. author named Evelyn Miller. The basic principle is explained in a chapter headed "Keep Your Bird Hungry.” Evelyn Miller says: "It is a proven fact that a hungry bird learns faster and talks more than a well-fed bird.”
Evelyn Miller cites as an example Mrs. Henry T. Radford, "a noble Englishwoman who came to America in 1955.” Mrs. Radford dials a number which makes her own telephone ring. As the phone rings she holds down the cradle, removes the receiver and places birdseed in the mouthpiece. Then she places the budgerigar by the mouthpiece and lets it feed. In time the budgerigar flics to the telephone every time it rings. The joke comes when Mrs. Radford abstains from putting seed in the mouthpiece. The budgerigar is so disappointed it shocks the telephone caller by speaking "a tumult of nonsensical chatter" inio the phone.
All budgerigars will learn to talk providing certain conditions are observed. As their speech is pure mimicry the fewer sounds they hear at any one time the better. The best talkers are removed from the nest at the age of thirty-two days, when their parents cease to feed them. They are then isolated so that they will stop imitating the natural chirruping of their kin. They live without a cage mate and hear nothing but the human voice. The owner repeats over and again the short phrases he wishes the bird to learn. Some owners make tape recordings of selected sayings and play them night and day. The bird learns more quickly still if a hood is placed over its cage during lessons. This induces an atmosphere of tedium and encourages the bird to learn to talk as a means of passing the time.
King of the budgies
According to Mrs. Rhind, the Toronto breeder, many birds sold in retail stores have spent too much time in each other's company to become good talkers. "The one sure way to get a talker." she says, "is to go to the breeder direct and buy a very young bird.” Mrs. Rhind's own talking birds use such simple expressions as “Give Me A Kiss,” "Boy. Oh Boy!” and “Let Me Out!"
Most budgerigars begin to talk by learning their own name, which these days is rarely Polly. Names like Prancer and Dancer, Jack and Mike. Petie anil Cutie, and Bing and Perry are widely used. The most famous talking bird in the history of captive budgerigars was a Yorkshire-bred cock of the Thirties called Albert. It could recite, in a broad Yorkshire accent, four verses of "Albert and the l ion." the poem made famous by Stanley Holloway. British movie producers made a documentary of Albert's life and talents.
Some budgerigars learn to recite clearly their name, address and telephone number. Many escaped birds have found their way back home through this facility. East November, in Chester, England, a strange budgerigar flew into a kitchen window. It said to the astonished housewife: "My name is Peter Crozier and I live at 2 Bideford Square. Edgeware. London.” That same evening Peter was
in a cardboard box, bound by train for London, one hundred and eighty miles south.
Budgerigars have been known to fly even greater distances in their efforts to win freedom. Captain Andrew Sutherland. master of the former Canadian freighter Tribcrg. once climbed the rigging to pick up a budgerigar that had alighted on the ship's mast. At the time the Triberg was five hundred miles east of Newfoundland.
Unlike canaries, which panic and become hard to catch, the more phlegma-
tic budgerigars may be released from their cages and permitted to fly around the room. This custom is largely responsible for the heavy budgerigar mortality rate.
If a budgerigar is not eaten by a cat. drowned in the toilet bowl, suffocated in a net curtain or trodden on by an unobservant owner it usually escapes before its nine-year span of life is up. thus creating a demand for replacements.
Its skill as a jail-breaker derives largely from its ability to alight so delicately on living flesh that the soul within is un-
aware of its presence. At a cocktail party attended by the writer a few years ago a bald-headed guest spent the entire evening without realizing that his host’s budgerigar was perched on the summit of his glossy cranium.
Owners often walk out of their homes with a budgerigar nestling in their hair, and so lose it. Other budgerigars have escaped the house on the back of a dog, on top of an opened umbrella, and concealed among a bunch of grapes in a woman’s Sunday hat.
Compared with the budgerigar the in-
mates of Ofilag Nine were amateurs in the art of escapology. If it regains its freedom in summer the budgerigar stands a fair chance of survival. Every day the three Toronto newspapers print among them an average of a dozen advertisements for lost budgerigars. Although no exact figures are available it is believed that about a third of those lost in summer are found. Bill Jones, the Aylmer breeder, says: “They survive by flying with flocks of sparrows. They seem to know that the sparrows always know where there is something to eat. But some budgerigars get fed up with wild life anil usually fly into the open window of a house. Most good birds are banded with the number of their breeder and from this it is usually possible to find the owner. I've known of birds being returned to their owners after an absence of three months.”
During the Canadian winter, however,
escaped budgerigars are usually doomed. The sparrows, desperate for food themselves, will peck to death any budgerigar which tries to share their finds. Although the budgerigar can stand below-freezing temperatures the difficulties of feeding in winter lower its resistance and it soon dies.
A couple of years ago an escaped budgerigar flew into Christ Church Cathedral in Hamilton and perched in the vaultings sixty feet above the choir stalls. Men tried to reach it on fire ladders but it always flew away just as they were about to grasp it. In an attempt to frighten it down dozens of colored gasfilled balloons were let loose to drift up toward the bird, but without success. Finally its own cage was brought into the cathedral and placed on the floor. At the entrance to the cage a little pile of seeil was placed. Then a spotlight was rigged up to illuminate the cage. But the
bird never came down. It preferred to starve to death among the lofty masonry.
Such anti-social instincts, however, may soon be a thing of the past. Breeders have found that it is possible to change not only the budgerigar’s appearance but its attitude toward society. In England the Duke of Bedford, one of the world’s foremost budgerigar breeders, has produced a strain with the characteristics of the homing pigeon. The Bedford budgerigars fly around all day in flocks and at night return to their roosts.
Meanwhile breeders of canaries are trying desperately to introduce brighter colors into their birds and so save themselves from being overwhelmed by the budgerigar cult. In the race for color many varieties of pretty little finches have been brought into captivity and mated with canaries. Another bird, from India, is being caged because it out-talks
all the parrot family. It is called the mynah. It looks rather like a crow and it has the bleary, raffish expression of a drunken sexton. One of its most popular affectations is a maniacal human laugh which blanches and freezes anybody who hears it for the first time. Mynahs are selling in small numbers for between fifty and a hundred dollars each.
All this industry is frowned upon by another kind of bird lover, the bird watcher. One Toronto bird watcher says: “I would hate to go on record as attacking the budgerigar or any other caged bird. After all caged birds give pleasure to many people, including shut-ins. But I would suggest to those who lose their budgerigar that they invest the ten dollars it would cost them to buy another in a second-hand pair of binoculars, and try for a while looking out into their backyards at the birds which live as God intended them to live.” ★