Budgies are brilliant

2011-11-03 00:00

WHEN she was emigrating from England to Australia, a woman we will call Patricia Ryan, smuggled her pet budgerigar on to the aeroplane.

En route, however, the talking bird spoke out and was discovered. Since the importation of budgies is banned in Australia, although that is where they originated, Bonnie had to be left behind in Hong Kong while Miss Ryan flew on to Sydney.

There, she made tearful entreaties for him. However, Australian customs officials were adamant: Bonnie was avis non grata. What to do? Well, Miss Ryan did what any true budgie fancier might do: she returned to Hong Kong and took Bonnie all the way back to England, thousands of rands poorer.

That is how it is with budgies, those pert and perky little cage birds known in various parts of the world as shell parakeets, zebra parrots, Melopsittacus undulatus and, by any name, as one of the world’s most popular and pampered pets.

In July 2005, my husband died from pancreatic cancer. I was very lonely. Any widow will admit it is an adjustment. The empty chair. The habit of pouring two cups of tea instead of one. My friend Louise brought me some frozen dinners as I was too upset to eat properly. She told me her brother was emigrating and wanted to find a home for his pet budgie. Blessing is his name.

“Well,” I thought, “what have I got to lose? A budgie is something to talk to.”

As it happened, Blessing was definitely not a “something”. He was a person and a personality, and his company effectively pulled me out of the inevitable depression of widowhood.

I slipped into the habit of carting around Blessing’s cage so that he was with me in whichever room I happened to be in. He muttered to me from the end of the dining-room table at meal times. He cocked his head sideways and watched me curiously as I sat at my sewing machine.

Blessing, like myself, is musical. He is delighted when I play Andre Rieu CDs and DVDs. Blessing hangs upside down in his cage and whistles loudly in accompaniment with the orchestra.

Because of their gaudy plumage, their gregarious personalities and their ability to mimic the human voice in everything from the 23rd Psalm to bawdy limericks, budgerigars inspire great affection in their doting owners.

One man built a stone bungalow for his 50 budgies, while his wife picked out wallpaper and put lace curtains at the windows. An English doctor always takes Toby, one of his 130 budgerigars, when he does his rounds. “If ever he dared visit patients without Toby,” said his wife, “they would make a terrible fuss.”

Vets and pet dealers generally agree that some of their most frantic distress calls concern budgies. Once a New York vet was telephoned by a doctor whose budgerigar, while flying around the dining room, had struck a mirror and fallen into a bowl of icy vichyssoise. Now the bird was suffering from shock, immersion and probably incipient pneumonia. “What can I do?” the caller wailed. The vet prescribed Aureomycin for the bird, and a shot of brandy for the doctor.

Given proper patient training, budgies can master many tricks. “Canaries only sit and sing,” said the owner of a pet shop, “but budgies can do just about anything.” In California, a variety artist has taught 50 budgies to pull one another around in tiny chariots and to light his cigars.

However, the budgerigar’s greatest gift is talking. A physicist taught one to recite a condensed version of Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, while there’s a budgie in Chicago that says: “It’s preposterous! Birds can’t talk.”

A champion chatterer was Sparkie, winner among 3 000 birds in a 1958 contest in London to find the world’s best talking budgie. Sparkie earned more than R2 000 for his personal appearances and on his death in 1962, the BBC solemnly aired a 10-minute radio programme in his memory.

Budgies are considered such a good antidote for loneliness that Britain’s Companionship Trust, a charity set up to combat loneliness, has given thousands of them to the aged.

As a cheerful companion, Blessing has no equal. I adjusted to living alone and I don’t feel lonely at all. When friends call, Blessing has become a talking point, and, indeed, he is not shy to join in the conversation. One visitor scattered cake crumbs on my carpet. “What a mess! What a mess! Blessing screeched indignantly. I had to apologise for his unflinching frankness.

One bird manual sums it all up: “Budgerigars get in your blood. The affection felt for them is very akin to that felt for human friends.”

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