By Vanessa Voltolina
If you’ve ever marveled at a small, colorful, talkative pet bird, chances are it’s a budgerigar. Budgerigars, also known as parakeets or “budgies,” are the most popular type of caged parakeet. They tend to be very friendly, talkative birds, said Dr. Alicia McLaughlin, DVM, associate veterinarian at the Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine in Bothell, WA. Unsure of what’s involved in caring for a budgie and how you can help it seamlessly make its way into your family? Here, find out what you need to know about caring for a budgerigar and other considerations to keep in mind if one is in your future.
History of the Budgerigar
Parakeets comprise about 115 species of birds that are seed-eating parrots of small size, slender build, and long, tapering tails, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Budgerigars are a type of parakeet and, in addition to being called “budgies,” they are often referred to as “shell parakeets” due to the wavy, shell-like formations on their wings.
Budgerigars are about seven and a half inches long and come in hundreds of brilliant shades of greens and yellows. Generally, parakeets — budgies included — are found in warm regions, from India to Australia and tropical America, and prefer temperatures in the upper 70s to low 80 degrees Fahrenheit (particularly in areas of Australia, where they form large flocks in Australia’s grasslands). These birds congregate together for nesting — forming a breeding colony — in tree holes, laying six to eight eggs twice a year. They tend to have a shorter lifespan than some other parrot species, generally living between 6 and 12 years, Dr. McLaughlin said.
Where to Buy a Budgerigar
Unfortunately, some budgies found in pet stores can be the product of bird mills. However, parrot rescues can be found in every state and will have birds available for adoption that have been medically tested and cleared, said Jacqueline Johnson, Parrot Garden Manager at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. According to The Gabriel Foundation, a parrot welfare organization, medical testing often includes microscopic fecal analysis (to ensure a bird is parasite-free) and testing for Chlamydophila psittaci (psittacosis), also known as “parrot fever,” a bacterial illness that may be carried by budgies without any signs of illness and that is transmissible to humans. General blood testing, as well as testing for other illnesses, may also be performed, especially if a veterinarian examining the bird finds any marked abnormalities.
What Do Budgerigars Eat?
According to Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, board-certified bird specialist and owner of the Veterinary Center for Birds & Exotics in Bedford Hills, NY, budgies need a varied diet that includes formulated pellets, fresh vegetables and fruits, with seeds provided as only an occasional treat. Most avian veterinarians recommend that formulated pellets make up about 70 percent of the diet (these are nutritionally balanced and are created using a blend of grains, seeds, vegetables, fruits, vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients). The other third of the budgerigar diet may come from fresh or frozen vegetables, fresh or frozen fruits and grains, as well as small amounts of other protein sources such as cooked egg or meat.
While seed may be a favorite food among budgerigars, an exclusive, seed-only diet is a no-no, McLaughlin said, as seeds are deficient in nearly all vital nutrients. Although you may find products like grit — which is primarily made from ground up minerals and sand — marketed for budgies to help their stomachs grind up seed hulls, Johnson said that while grit is useful for birds like pigeons who swallow seeds whole, budgies hull their seeds before eating and don’t need to be given grit.
Most produce and table foods that are healthy for people are also nutritious for birds. Try to feed your budgerigar either fresh or frozen produce, avoiding too much fruit (it’s high in sugar and may lead to obesity), as well as canned foods, as they may contain certain preservatives that may not be safe for your bird, Dr. McLaughlin said. You’ll also want to avoid feeding your budgie avocado, chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, and uncooked dry beans and legumes, as they contain toxins that can be fatal if your bird consumes enough of them.
Budgerigars can be creatures of habit, and McLaughlin recommended not making any sudden changes in their diet, as some birds may not recognize new items as food and may actually starve themselves. “Bird owners should talk to an avian veterinarian if they are considering a diet change,” she said.
Veterinary Care and Your Budgerigar
Due to extensive inbreeding in the pet trade, budgies can be prone to certain tumors and cancers, Johnson said. Budgerigars can suffer from a variety of medical problems, including traumatic injuries to limbs or beaks from scuffles with other animals, obesity, liver disease, gastrointestinal parasites and other infections, according to Dr. McLaughlin, making regular veterinary check-ups with a bird-savvy veterinarian vital. Since birds commonly mask signs of illness for as long as possible, a yearly veterinary exam is important to help detect problems early and to establish a normal baseline for the bird, Dr. McLaughlin said. “I recommend that budgies be examined by an exotic animal or avian veterinarian every six months to help identify and treat any developing disorders early,” she said. Consider annual bloodwork and fecal analysis to screen for underlying health issues.
Caring for Your Budgerigar
Budgies tend to be tame, respond well to regular, gentle handling, and can be very affectionate, Dr. McLaughlin said. Additionally, they are not as loud as many other parrot species and can develop surprising vocabularies. Depending on the individual bird and the amount of training they receive, budgies are capable of learning dozens or more words in different languages. Even though budgies are known for being quieter parrots, they may still be noisy and are very messy — a trait of virtually all birds. As with any pet, budgerigars require a big commitment, including a lot of attention to socialize them, safe housing, and proper nutrition, Dr. McLaughlin said.
Budgies are small and may be timid, so if there are other predatory pets in the house, said Dr. Hess, such as cats or dogs that might consider budgies as prey, owners should be careful not to have the birds out of their cages when these other pets are around and should be sure that budgies’ cages are securely locked and not easily within other pets’ reach.
Dr. Hess added that budgies also may not be the right fit for very young children, who may scare these birds with their quick movements and rough handling. However, budgies can make great companions for slightly older, responsible children who are supervised when they handle these pets and who can be taught to allow these birds to sit quietly on their hands.
Whether or not you allow your budgerigar to fly freely in your home depends on your living situation, said Dr. Hess. While it is nice to enable your pet bird to fly as it does in the wild, in a small captive setting (particularly if there are other pets in the house or if they can be in danger of flying into a window, mirror, or ceiling fan or out an open door) flying may not be practical, and wing clipping – or trimming the five outermost flight feather to prevent lift – may be the more prudent choice.
Wing clipping is temporary, however, and feathers will grow back in a few months if you decide to let your bird fly. “A caregiver must weigh the benefits of flight against the need for safety, and make an informed decision about clipping wings or not,” said Johnson.
Consult an avian veterinarian before making the decision to trim a bird’s wings, Dr. McLaughlin said. The process of clipping a bird’s wings is not painful and usually needs to be performed every three to six months, she added.
When purchasing a cage, consider one that is large enough for your bird to fly or hop uninhibited, with narrow bar spacing (larger spacing can lead to budgerigars getting their heads caught in the bars). Since budgies love warmer temperatures, Dr. McLaughlin recommended keeping a ceramic heat lamp to one side of the cage (outside of the cage) if your home is particularly cool in the winter. She also recommends allowing your budgie to have supervised time out in natural sunlight (in a cage for their protection) whenever possible for optimum health.
According to Dr. Hess, ultraviolet (UV) light is critical to enabling birds to make vitamin D in their skin, which then enables them to absorb calcium from their food. If it’s too cold or impractical to expose your bird to natural sunlight outside, you can provide your budgie with supplemental UV light for several hours each day using a 5.0 UVB light (which emits a five-percent UVB output) shining over the cage, Dr. McLaughlin said. Several safe UV lights are commercially available for birds, Hess added, and UV lights made for reptiles should not be used for birds, as the light may cause damage to their eyes or burns.
When it comes to grooming your budgerigar, Dr. McLaughlin said that they should be allowed to “shower” with water daily (or a minimum of twice per week) for optimal feather and skin health. Budgies typically need toenail trims every other month to keep them short and blunt to prevent them from catching on clothing or curling under and damaging the feet; however, if you provide your bird with a number of different-texture perches, they will often wear their nails down naturally, Dr. Johnson said.
Budgerigars usually enjoy a wide variety of bird toys, said Dr. Hess, including shredding toys (made from paper for your parrot to destroy), foot toys (to promote dexterity of the feet), swings, noise makers and foraging toys (puzzle-like toys that hide food for your bird to discover). Materials that are safe for use in parrot toys include wood, leather, paper and most hard plastic products that are not too soft to chew and ingest. Toys with bells or other metal items should be made only of stainless steel or nickel plated metal and not zinc or lead, which are potentially toxic to birds
“Budgies can be incredible companions,” Johnson said. “They are smart, silly, and tend to bond closely to their owners if they are handled consistently. It is important to move slowly at first to establish a trust-based relationship. Once a budgie accepts you, they love to spend time with you.”
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