The week of 19-25 October 2015 is Bird Week so this week we’re taking a look at Sydney’s bird life, with a special mention of the budgerigar, an Australian native bird that’s now the most popular caged bird worldwide. For Neville Cayley, writing in 1936,  it was ‘doubtful if any other bird, animal, or flower from Australia is better known than this dainty and charming little feathered ambassador’.

A man, a cigarette and a budgerigar (or lovebird), 1935 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order No. hood_12255)
A man, a cigarette and a budgerigar (or lovebird), 1935 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order No. hood_12255)

Ornithologist and zoologist John Gould visited Australia in 1838-40 to prepare for his monumental work on Australian birds. When he returned to England, he took live budgerigars back with him. Gould was the author and illustrator of the impressive six-part publication, Birds of Australia, produced between 1840 and 1848. He is credited with introducing budgies to the world.

Budgerigars ‘were a great favourite in England as a cage bird’ by the late 19th century. Closer to home, breeding budgerigars became a popular pastime for the well-heeled in Sydney by the early to mid-20th century. The decade of the 1930s in particular saw the development of the ‘cult of the budgerigar’. There was a craze for aviary-bred budgies with diverse and beautiful colourings, which were developed through ‘scientific breeding, following Mendelism’.

Vibrantly coloured budgies on a perch, 1959 (National Archives of Australia, Image No. A1500, K4936)
Vibrantly coloured budgies on a perch, 1959 (National Archives of Australia, Image No. A1500, K4936)

In 1935, the Fairfax family had a show of 100 budgies in the gardens of their fancy home ‘Elaine’ in Double Bay. It was reported that ‘their (the birds) quality afforded proof of the progress being made in developing mauves, sky-blues, and other colours’. Over 100 colour variations were evolved.

Billy Peach was a talking budgie from Sydney, who found fame across Australia in the 1940s and 50s as a radio star. He had ‘personal appearances’ at department stores in Melbourne and Sydney, was a ‘spokesbird’ for the RSPCA and a Red Cross Voluntary Aid during World War 2. His ‘mistress, friend and trainer’ was Mrs Lydia Peach, ‘a very active great-grandmother’ from Darling Point. Billy began his speech training at six weeks old, ‘which has resulted in an extensive vocabulary’. When not making public appearances, Billy the budgie spent his life in a Darling Point flat with Mr and Mrs Peach. He could sing ‘God Save the King’, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, and had a vocabulary of 500 words.

Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) drawn by Neville Cayley, c1930s (National Library of Australia, nla.obj-135630495/PIC Drawer 6482 #R10113)
Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) drawn by Neville Cayley, c1930s (National Library of Australia, nla.obj-135630495/PIC Drawer 6482 #R10113)

It’s sad to see birds in cages, especially long-lived birds like budgerigars and cockatoos, so it’s good news that Bird Week is all about appreciating native birds in the environment – in 2015, ‘BirdLife Australia and the Birds in Backyards team have come together to bring you the Aussie Backyard Bird Count!’.

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