My Best Friend’s A Budgie, But Am I His?

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Words || Lachlan Marnoch

I was eating my breakfast when Tingle scrambled down my arm and started stealing Coco-Pops. I chased him off with my fingers, but Tingle is a budgerigar, Melopsittacus undulatus, and a more cheekily persistent species I have never encountered. When he finally jumped in the bowl to evade me, splashing chocolatey milk on the table, I gave up and put him in his cage

Budgerigars are small parrots native to the Australian desert, their persistence born from dodging around raptors to get to water. In the wild they live on seeds from grass and spinifex, and live in flocks starting at a few dozen. They work together to find food and water, and as resources grow scarce they band together in larger groups, sometimes over a million, in search of watering holes.

How can interacting with a family of five humans, cut to three when Uni is on, possibly compare? The thought troubles me. Tingle must be bored out of his mind when no-one’s home. He sings to his reflection and occasionally feeds it with regurgitated seeds, but I find it hard to believe he thinks it’s a real bird. Starved of the company of budgerigars, could he be comforting himself with the pretence of social interaction?

The most likely origin of ‘budgerigar’ is as a corruption of the Gamilaraay word ‘gijirrigaa’, but another stance is that ‘budgerigar’ translates to ‘good food’ or even ‘tasty treat’. Did Indigenous people munch on budgies like popcorn? Their scant meat hardly seems worth the effort of picking the bony birds apart. It’s more likely that ‘good food’ refers to the fact that Aboriginal groups would follow these great, shimmering mega-flocks to water, and hence to good food. So budgies and humans go back a long way.

In recent centuries this relationship has expanded. They are the most popular pet birds in the world, and the third most popular pet overall. They’re inexpensive to keep and are possessed of charming charisma, and thus have been spread across the world in artificial migration. They have been selectively bred into a diverse array of colours and sizes. British ‘show budgies’, for example, are monstrous creations with twice the size and half the lifespan of their wild cousins.

Although normal in size, Tingle is not, in appearance, your typical budgie. Undulatus is Latin for ‘undulated’, that is, wave-patterned. The black scalloping this refers to, running down the back and wings of the wild morph, is present on Tingle only in erratic chunks, replaced across most of his wings by pale, almost fluoro yellow. His tail feathers, supposed to be a deep indigo-green, are the same yellow. Mottled and asymmetric, where wild-types have a solid green chest he has light blue interrupted with patches of yellow and white. His face is the normal sunflower yellow, but his black throat spots are scattered randomly.

As a crossbreed of several different colour morphs, Tingle could never have existed in the outback. Such mutations can occur there, but they are rejected by the flock as a dangerous violation of camouflage.

Melopsittacus, derived from Greek, is ‘melodious parrot’, but this seems a misnomer. Tingle can chatter incessantly, scrambling together bird noises, dogs barking, ringing phones, my sister’s message tone, and fragments of human speech (spoken in a raspy, inhuman, yet strangely childlike voice). “Whatcha doin’” is a new favourite. Although charming and highly entertaining, this prattle bears little resemblance to coherent melody.

Other names include ‘flight bird’ (a redundant designation, if ever one existed), ‘scallop parrot’ (which refers again to their appearance, but, in my New South Welshman vernacular, identifies them only with fried potato cakes), or ‘lovebird’.

Although the last strikes a chord, none of these names properly express the bird’s adventurous, playful, affectionate nature. Tingle is sitting on my shoulder as I write this, and occasionally ventures down my arm to investigate the keyboard or his reflection on the screen. I could write a separate essay describing his quirks. If I raise him to face-level he either climbs onto my glasses or nibbles my lips as though kissing. This is probably a product of the species’ strange impulse to pick at anything that stands out from its surroundings. This compulsion extends to loose threads, letters on keyboards, moles and freckles.

Tingle’s home is his cage. He takes himself there when he’s tired or hungry. Perpetually caged birds have been found to suffer from something like PTSD, with high levels of anxiety and depression. I think my family is better than that, treating our birds with care and respect. But it might be the height of arrogance to assume we know how Tingle feels. Humans are talented at seeing patterns where none exist, like on the Moon. Miserable caged cockatoos, half-plucked from stress, still sing a song that sounds cheery. Perhaps the idea that Tingle reciprocates my emotions is, too, an anthropomorphising delusion.

Synapsids (our distant ancestors) and sauropsids (his) diverged 320 million years ago. For the intervening evolution to have produced two minds even remotely similar would be no less than a miracle of convergence. He could have an avian Stockholm Syndrome for all I know, or an alien mental illness undiagnosed by human science.

I can’t really convince myself of that. The evidence presented by my anthropo-chauvinistic brain is of a cheerful creature who adores my family. Maybe, I tell myself, convergent evolution is the thing; like the independent development of the similar body plans of dolphins and sharks. That’s an idea I can live with. Maybe the selective pressures of living in social groups, as both our species do, begets emotional needs that are compatible between birds and humans.

But maybe not.

Maybe the thought, that I and bird-lovers across the globe might have been long subjecting the animals we love to torments unknown, is just too awful to face.


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