Budgerigars take flight

Ornithologist Dr Penny Olsen has written an authoritative history of the beloved budgerigar

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Budgerigars take flight in fascinating photographic history of the iconic Australian bird

TOBY THE GREAT: Winston Churchill with his beloved budgie Toby.

TOBY THE GREAT: Winston Churchill with his beloved budgie Toby.

Hands up, how many of you have owned a budgieor two?

I've loved them all my life and currently have four so it's appropriate that on the day I chatted with respected ornithologist Dr Penny Olsen on the release of Flight of the Budgerigar (NLA Publishing $49.99, October 1), my chirpy feather kids were almost as keen to interview her as I was.

The irony of my gibbering flock was not lost on Dr Olsen who has written the authoritative history of the beloved budgerigar. Lavishly illustrated in full colour, Dr Olsen takes the reader from the Dreamtime to the colonial live bird trade, the competitive culture of the showroom and today's thriving wild flocks.

Budgerigars, or budgies as they are commonly known, are the most widely known of all the parrots as it is a popular pet throughout the world. And why not? They are colourful, clever, much-loved and Australia's avian gift to the world.

CHIRPY BOOK: Dr Penny Olsen has written Flight of the Budgerigar.

CHIRPY BOOK: Dr Penny Olsen has written Flight of the Budgerigar.

But the budgies that you and I know and love are a far flight from the ones found in the Outback. While the budgerigar is arguably Australia's best-known bird, many of us aren't aware that it is natively Australian. Or that today's super-sized, show budgie is as different from the free-living original as a chihuahua from a wolf.

Flight of the Budgerigar sets to change that.

"They're very popular little birds,' Dr Olsen said. "And for such little birds, they have a huge and fascinating history."

Far from the cosy domestic lives budgies live today, the native budgerigar survived in boom-bust cycles in the arid inland of Australia. Life was often short; if they were not fodder for predators, they starved or had to struggle their way to districts closer to the coast.

For the Warlpiri and their Arrernte neighbours around Alice Springs, the budgerigar in its ancestral form was also a totem animal, featuring in art, ceremonies, song lines and legends.

Since 1840 when ornithologist John Gould took living specimens to London, this little parrot has been on a remarkable journey as Australia's first mass export. Its story includes British queens, spies and nobles, Japanese princes, Hollywood stars and world leaders.

The book is full of wonderful stories of famous and infamous owners but my favourite involves wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill whose budgie Toby was a respected resident of 10 Downing St. Toby attended early morning ministerial meetings at Churchill's bedside, went on holidays with his master, shared his bedroom and ate all meals with him. Toby's perch was Churchill's bald head.

"It's stories like Winston Churchill's that really make a difference," Dr Olsen said.

A handful of budgies winged their way into the lives - and families - of key players in world affairs in the twentieth century.

There's a gorgeous black and white image of former First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, with her children Caroline and John Junior and their budgies Marybelle and Bluebell who lived in the White House nursery. It was 1962 and JFK had just negotiated his way through the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1963, the budgies moved out of the White House with the rest of the family after JFK was assassinated.

VIPS: Jacqueline Kennedy with Caroline and John Jr play with Bluebell and Marybelle.

VIPS: Jacqueline Kennedy with Caroline and John Jr play with Bluebell and Marybelle.

Back home, Sir Robert Menzies, Australia's Cold War leader until 1966, was photographed with Bingo the Budgerigar out on the election hustings, a sign of the times, perhaps, when greeting a budgie was tantamount to kissing a baby.

Packed full of illustrations, including works of art and contemporary colour photographs, Flight of the Budgerigar is a fascinating visual history of one of Australia's most iconic birds.

"It's a very sweet book," Dr Olsen said. "It's a sweet little book about a sweet little bird and it was such a joy to write and there has been so much interest in this remarkable history.

"There was such a frenzy when they were first discovered and the first ones that were sent overseas went to England. When they were put into captivity, after being in the wild, they were very flighty and scared.

"Over the next 100 years or so, they were bred to become the larger budgies we know today with so many different colours."

Dr Olsen is an Honorary Professor in the Division of Ecology, Evolution and Genetics at The Australian National University. After a career as a field biologist and ecological consultant, she is now mostly occupied writing books about Australian natural history and its recorders, both artistic and scientific. She has written more than 25 books, including Australian Predators of the Sky (2015) and Australia's First Naturalists: Indigenous Peoples' Contribution to Early Zoology (2019).