‘The most animated, cheerful little creatures you can possibly imagine.’ That’s how John Gould, ornithologist and bird artist, described Budgerigars in the 1800s.
The Budgerigar is a colourful parrot native to Australia. Its plumage is bright yellow and green, with a blue cheek and black scalloping on its wing feathers. Its tail is slender and dark blue. Small in size, they’re roughly 18-20cm from top to tail, and weigh 30-40 g.
You may know them as ‘Budgies’, but do you know that the common name is derived from a Gamilaraay Aboriginal language name ‘Betcherrygah’, which is thought to mean ‘good food’? It’s unknown whether this means that the bird itself is good eating, or whether their seed-seeking migrations led Gamilaraay to places of rainfall and abundant food. The bird’s scientific name is Melopsittacus undulatus. Melopsittacus is Greek for ‘melodious parrot’ and undulatus is Latin for 'undulated', referring to their scalloped wing patterns.
Budgerigars have been bred in captivity since the 1850s and are now one of the world’s best known pet birds. They’re hardy, animated and can mimic human speech. Mauve, olive and blue to pure white, the bird has been bred into a huge range of colours and patterns.
The humble budgie has contributed significantly to modern science. They were early subjects of Greg Mendel's research into genetic inheritance. On genetics, the Budgerigar’s closest relatives are the Ground Parrot (Pezoporus wallicus) and the Night Parrot (Geopsittacus occidentalis). Once thought extinct, the Night Parrot is now protected on Bush Heritage Australia’s Pullen Pullen Reserve.
Where do Budgerigars live?
Budgerigars have an extensive natural range – they’re found through most of Australia's interior west of the Great Dividing Range. They’re not found in Tasmania, Cape York, or the coastal areas of eastern, northern or south-western Australia.
Budgerigars are highly nomadic. They generally fly north during winter, covering significant distances as they migrate. Flocks follow rainfall and seasonally abundant seeding grasses. Flocks normally range from 3 to 100 birds, but after rainfall can number many thousands! Budgies inhabit savannas, grasslands, open forests, grassy woodlands and farmland. Because they need to drink each day, they’re usually found nearby water.
This species is considered of Least Concern to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Budgerigars typically drink during the morning, lapping 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 will drink early morning dew and ‘bathe’ in wet grass.
A Budgerigar’s beak and flexible tongue is 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 the plant. They then de-husk the seed and swallow it 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 ‘chirruping’ noise.
Budgerigars are monogamous – they mate for life. Breeding occurs at any time of the year, typically after rain. The nests, sometimes within metres 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.
This species is abundant due to the availability of artificial water sources for livestock in arid areas. Nonetheless, feral cats predate on budgies, and feral as well as native herbivores may cause local declines in their preferred food source.
Introduced pasture grasses, such as Buffel Grass and African Love Grass, are spreading through much of the Budgerigar’s range, replacing their preferred native grasses en masse. Inappropriate wildfires, often fuelled by introduced pasture grasses, may destroy suitable nesting hollows by burning old trees. In some agricultural areas budgies are considered a pest, with large flocks eating cereal crops.
What’s Bush Heritage doing?
We have budgies on many of our reserves. They're particularly prevalent on our South Australian reserves, Bon Bon and Boolcoomatta. We help Budgerigars primarily through controlling or removing introduced competitors, such as livestock other feral herbivores, like goats and camels. By preventing colonization and spread of invasive grasses, such as Buffel Grass, we're protecting prime foraging habitat. This helps supports the vegetation that provides food and shelter for these iconic Australian birds.