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Complete Care System for Budgerigars

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Author: Dr. Rob Marshal, B.V.Sc., M.A.V., C. Sc. (Avian Health)
Excerpt from: Complete Care System for Budgerigars
Pet Health/Pet Bird Care

An understanding of the behaviour and daily routines of wild budgerigars described in this section will allow you to better understand their needs in captivity and enable you to develop their true personality and potential as a pet bird.

Budgerigars inhabit the dry inland areas of Australia where grasslands dominate their natural environment. They are hardy birds relying upon grass seeds as their staple food. These very small parrots are open country birds that must rely upon their strong flying ability, foraging skills and long-term memory to survive. They make ideal pets when their daily routine provides them with opportunities that encourage the development of these natural instincts.

Daily Routine

Your pet budgerigar will be happier and healthier when it follows a daily routine that is closely aligned to the daily routine of wild budgerigars.

At daylight each morning budgerigars start their search for seeding grasses and must often fly long distances to locate feeding grounds because food is scarce across their hot, dry country. They forage as a flock on the ground preferring to take the fresh green seeds from the fronds of seeding grasses. When these are not available they search the ground for and eat fallen "dry" grass seeds. They also chew on herbaceous leafy plants, tree branches and leaves.

They move into trees during the day when it is too hot to forage on the ground. Here they rest and occupy themselves preening, chattering to family members and chewing on branches.

In the cool of the afternoon they return to the ground in search of food before returning to roosting trees (or their nest holes) at sunset. Here they chatter and socialise until dark. They then sleep until first light in the morning.

Special Characteristics of Budgerigars

Highly Adaptable - Adjust to most daily Routines
Strong Flying Ability - Free Flight Required
Fast Eaters - Ration Feeding Optional
Seed Eaters - Food Supplements Necessary
Social & Talkative Behaviour - Cognition (i.e. using words in context)
Playful Nature - Toys for Occupation, Learning & Happiness

Highly Adaptable - Budgerigars adjust quickly to most daily routines. Budgerigars are the most adaptable of all parrots because as wild birds they have learnt to survive in an extremely harsh and unpredictable environment. As pets they will quickly learn to adjust to your own daily routines. However, they must receive adequate rest. Like humans, the rest they need varies from one bird to the next according to metabolism, diet and daily activities.

At nightfall pet budgerigars will want to sleep, as they do in Nature, but if allowed they will stay awake and socialize with their owners. Budgerigars can be kept up late at night as long as they are given an opportunity to rest during the day.

There are no hard and fast rules regarding the number of hours that budgerigars need for sleep but it is important to allow your bird to rest at the first signs of overtiredness.

When deprived of sleep budgerigars become overtired, irritable, less talkative and prone to illness. Budgerigars will fluff up, lift one leg up and grinding their beak quietly when overtired. In order to prevent illness your budgerigar must be allowed to sleep immediately at nightfall and be given Quick gel in the drinking water for two consecutive days.

Strong Flying Ability - Daily exercise is enjoyed by Budgerigars. Strong flight is an important part of foraging behaviour for wild budgerigars, as they must fly long distances in search of seeding grasses.

Supervised flight outside the cage is encouraged for pet budgerigars, as strong flight is beneficial to their health and happiness. They should be permitted to fly prior to the morning and evening mealtime because this is a time when wild budgerigars fly to their feeding grounds and when pet budgerigars are most energetic. This period of freedom outside the cage is a natural time for learning and discovery (i.e. searching for food in the wild) and an ideal time to encourage pet budgerigars to play and learn tricks. Pet birds should be called into their cage for their meal. Between mealtimes they should remain in their cage and not be permitted unsupervised free flight in order to avoid injury or contamination.

It is imperative that pet birds are caged when there is no human supervision available as a home setting is a danger zone for free ranging pet birds. Budgerigars are by nature inquisitive birds and ground feeders so that they fly to the floor to forage and fly to roost in high places. Here they will inhale or ingest potentially life threatening items (e.g. contaminated dust, carpet fibres, metal fragments, lacquered wood etc.).

The cage is the very best place for your bird when it is not flying, climbing on the cage or interacting directly with you. It will remain safe and be happier inside a well-organized cage than outside it.

Fast Eaters - Ration feeding is helpful for budgerigars.Budgerigars eat their food very quickly because of a scarcity of food supply across their natural range. They must also eat quickly because the time available for foraging in the wild is reduced because they are unable to forage on the ground during the heat of the day and time is often lost whilst flying to distant feeding grounds.

As pets, they also eat quickly and entirely focus on de-husking and consuming seeds as rapidly as possible. The intricate process of eating is an important and essential part of their happiness in captivity and a major reason why processed pelleted food is unsuitable for budgerigars. This natural characteristic should be encouraged in pet budgerigars by providing them with a set morning and evening period when they eat their fill. A restricted type feeding routine is helpful in training budgerigars to free-fly and return to their cage at mealtimes. It is safe to do because budgerigars have a relatively large crop - the crop is a seed storage organ - that stores enough food to last them between meals. With this feeding system, sprays of millet seeds may be given during the day as safeguards against hunger. Native tussock grasses such as Newcastle Grass and Mitchell Grass may be grown in your garden and seasonally fed when ripe with seeds or frozen and provided as a treat throughout the entire year. The seeds of these grasses are small and budgerigars enjoy the time taken to eat them. Other local grasses may also be fed.

A restricted food routine also helps reduce the high risk budgerigars have towards obesity and fat tumors.

Seed Diet - Food supplements are needed for occupation & food value.Seeds are essential and must be provided to budgerigars. Pelleted food is not suitable.

A mixture of millet seeds (Panicum spp, Setaria, Ecchinochloa spp), plain canary (Philaris canariensis), oats (Avena sativa), wheat (triticum aestivum) and other small seeds provides a good seed mix for pet birds (photo). However, the commercially grown agricultural seed mixes available for pet budgerigars are not as nutritious as native seeds and are lacking vital nutrients necessary for health. Because seeds are lacking in many vitamins and minerals essential to the health of budgerigars, it is necessary to mix food supplements into a seed mix to improve its food value. In order to provide the correct nutrient balance these supplements are given as part of a Weekly Nutritional and Health Programme. This Programme is seasonally adjusted for summer (between December and March) to support the annual moult period.

Food preparation should take place whilst your budgerigar is free flying and involves cage cleaning, mixing the supplements into the seed and drinking water, refreshing millet sprays and other foraging items in the cage. Foraging items include a shallow dish containing very few seeds and covered with a fresh leafy eucalypt branch to camouflage these hidden treats. Millet sprays are also hung in the cage to provide daytime foraging opportunities. As ground feeders it is best to place the seed dish on the grid floor inside the cage or on a flat feeding station outside the cage.

Your budgerigar is naturally inquisitive and should be encouraged to join in the food preparations and learn during this time.

Wild budgerigars forage as a flock. This behaviour strengthens flock security and is necessary for protection from predators. Sharing meal times with your pet bird initiates the same bond that wild birds have with their flock members and is used to strengthen the trust your pet bird has with you and your family.

Budgerigars rarely accept soft fleshy fruits or vegetables as they live in a very dry environment where their natural foods contain little moisture. Millet sprays are readily devoured although they will accept more fibrous grains (corn), fruits (apples) and vegetables (sliced carrot or long beans). Fruits and vegetables may be given as a training aid, lunch time treat or foraging items. They must be given every day when replacing food supplements as a reliable source of vitamin A.

All food and foraging items should be removed from the cage following the evening meal to maintain good hygiene and to prevent foraging opportunities prior to the next morning's mealtime.

Social & Talkative Behaviour - Budgerigars may be taught to use words in context.Budgerigars are extremely social and talkative in Nature. They have an extensive vocal repertoire (i.e. a very rich language of their own) consisting of many functionally and acoustically different call types. Special call functions that help flock security and cohesion have been identified in the budgerigar.

Alarm and flight calls are distinct safety calls used to warn a flock of danger and prepare its members to disperse.

Contact and isolation calls are used mostly during foraging to maintain flock cohesion. You may have noticed that your budgerigar will start to eat when you start your own meal, as this is an instinctual reaction associated with flock cohesion and security. Sharing mealtimes with your budgerigar is important for its happiness and will improve its ability and desire to talk with you.

The contact call plays a pivotal social role for budgerigars and they are able to learn, remember and use many different contact call variations throughout their lives. This ability provides pet budgerigars with a great potential to learn human language and other sounds. The contact call is the basis of parrot-type birds' great capacity for mimicry.

Other calls - chatter, preening and greeting calls - are social in nature and function to bond pairs, families and flocks. The innate social behaviour of budgerigars and these special "bonding" calls can be used to develop a strong social bond between you and your pet budgerigar.

It is the complex nature of the calls associated with courtship behaviour that set the budgerigar apart from most other parrots. Warbling is a distinct courtship call used by males to attract females and secure a nesting hole.

Warbling ability of male budgerigars is variable amongst individuals and is linked to memory and improved through practice. Male budgerigars learn complex warbling repertoires during competitive warbling and dance rituals involving groups of five or six male birds. The female budgerigar is attracted to the male who is able to learn and remember the most complex warble song. It is this innate ability to learn new and complex sounds quickly and remember them that gives male pet budgerigars their advanced cognitive ability (i.e. using words in context).

This instinctual need to learn new sounds can be nurtured in pet budgerigars to promote their natural cognitive abilities. Every day chatter between you and your male budgerigar will help him learn new words and to place them in context. Mirrors placed in the cage may be used to advance the cognitive talking abilities of your male budgerigar by stimulating warbling practice and competitive learning.

Native budgerigars have a remarkable memory and in the wild must learn many different "budgerigar" dialects. It is easy to teach your pet budgerigar to talk and use words in context by exploiting their natural ability and need to learn and by understanding that they are highly intelligent.

Pet budgerigars will want to chatter and learn to talk around midday and an hour before nightfall, as this is the time when wild budgerigars are chatting and socialising in trees. A mirror is recommended to encourage pet budgerigars to practice warbling and for idle chatter during those times when you are not there to provide conversation.

Playful Nature - Toys and a mirror will make your budgerigar happier.The hunger of wild budgerigars is usually satisfied before the heat of the day when they move to the cover of trees. Here they entertain themselves for many hours as their crops are full and they are not hungry. Therefore, foraging-type behavioural problems (e.g. feather plucking and self mutilation) are uncommon in pet budgerigars as they have a natural capacity to entertain themselves especially when provided with toys, a mirror and tree foliage during the day.

Interactive toys that move and make sounds (i.e. mirrors, bells, swings and more complex interactive audio toys) are essential for the happiness of budgerigars. Budgerigars will "socialise" with these toys during the day and in the evening i.e. at the same time that wild budgerigars entertain themselves.

Most budgerigars will become startled when new toys and branches are moved directly into the cage. New items - including perches, perch coverings, new foods, toys, branches etc. - should be introduced by the owner prior to moving them into the cage as they will be accepted by your bird when they are not seen as dangerous by other flock members (i.e. you - the owner). For example, you should hold a toy and encourage your bird to play with it before placing it in the cage. New tree branch foliage or seed sprays can be placed on the outside of the cage for a few days before moving them into the cage.

An annual health check is an integral part of developing your bird's innate potential as a companion pet, because without good health your bird is unable to respond fully to your affection or concentrate during training sessions. Microscopic testing of droppings (and sometimes other tests) are required as part of this health examination since birds are masters of hiding their illness.

The best time for a health check varies between bird species and sex. For female budgerigars, the most valuable time for a health check is between July and September as this is their natural time for breeding and when breeding related problems are most likely to occur. For male budgerigars, February and March are the ideal time for a health check as increasing male hormones suppress immunity and the likelihood of illness is increased.
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