I have deliberately referred to the species in this article as the Shell Parrot (Melopsittacus undulatus) in preference to its more common name Budgerigar. The wild-type birds to which this article is dedicated now bear only scant resemblance to the domesticated cage bird so well known to all birdkeepers.
In the wild this species ranges over most of the Australian mainland. It is, however, absent from coastal regions and tropical rainforest areas. Drier inland habitat is the home of this little parrot which can be seen in vast flocks when conditions have allowed their numbers to explode after taking advantage of abundant food supplies. Obviously the reverse applies in times of drought when birds not only fail to breed but fall victim to the harshness of Australia's inland.
I will always remember the quote from the late Alec Chisholm's book Bird Wonders of Australia when he says "another man recorded 60,000 dead budgies at a single dam - the birds seemed to be stunned by the heat and simply smothered as they dashed into the water in great clouds." This species' adaptability to such conditions is probably the reason for its success as a cage bird.
Forshaw (1981) believes that this species belongs to a monotypic genus transitional between the Neophema and Pezoporus, its field habits being similar to the Neophemas whereas its coloration more closely resembles Pezoporus, ie, the Ground Parrot.
I am sure all aviculturists are aware of the beautiful greens, yellows and blacks of the wild type bird. The size, however, is another matter with wild-
type birds being seven inches in length which compares to some domesticated birds reaching 9.5 inches in length. Not only is the length of the body increased in some domesticated birds but also the overall build is much greater than in wild-type birds. In earlier times Australian Budgerigar breeders would introduce wild blood into their show birds to improve both color and strength in blood lines. With the great variation in size between wildtype birds and show stock this practice has largely ceased.
This little gem of a parrot (ie, the "normal" wild bird) has only rarely been seen in Australian aviculture in the last 30 years. The domesticated type being so common has, no doubt, led breeders to consider the keeping of the wild-type bird a waste of time. In recent years a few purist breeders have begun to devote some time and aviary space to the Shell Parrot.
My first opportunity to procure some breeding stock occurred in October 1992 when I obtained two hens and one unrelated cock bird from a breeder. The birds were only youngsters so I was looking forward to the 1993-94 breeding season with great anticipation. I kept all three birds together as the breeding season approached with the thought that I would remove an odd hen if the cock bird showed a preference for one particular hen.
In aviculture the best laid plans often fall apart and this certainly happened when the young cock died suddenly for no apparent reason. The lesson to be learned from this is that with any breeding program two, or perhaps three pairs, should be seen as a minimum requirement. This will assist in cases where losses occur and it also provides a measure of flexibility to change pairings to achieve greater compatibility.
In March 1994 l was able to exchange a spare female for a young male which was only four months old. Everything went well with this pair through the early winter with the hen laying in June which is rather early for a species known to nest in the Australian spring (ie, SeptemberNovember). The hen incubated for about seven days when I had the misfortune of again losing the cock bird
for no explainable reason. My own autopsy did not reveal any abnormalities. The female continued to incubate her four eggs which eventually proved to be infertile.
This setback made the outlook for the 1994-95 breeding season look rather bleak. As mentioned, these birds, although not being expensive, are not easy to obtain so I did not have great expectations of obtaining a cock bird in the short term. I was, however, able to purchase a three-month-old cock bird in November 1994 which provided a mate for the hen, although I did not anticipate any breeding results in the current season due to the immaturity of the new male.
Following the introduction of the young male, the female laid two further clutches of infertile eggs which she incubated enthusiastically. I did observe the young male entering the nesting log at numerous times during these two failed attempts. Prior to a third clutch of five eggs being laid in January 1994, I observed the two birds mating on the front perch of the aviary on a number of occasions. The young male would have only been five months old at this time. This clutch hatched in 18 days with the hen carrying out all incubation duties. The cock, however, spent quite some time in the log whilst the hen was incubating and brooding the youngsters.
To assist the parents with the rearing of these youngsters I provided them with a choice of greenfoods and seeding grasses but little interest was shown in these food items. The only time I have seen this species take such food was when millet grew naturally in their aviary. Soaked seed was also fed and this provided the parents with their sole source of supplementary food during the rearing of the four young ones. When feeding soaked seed I always sprinkle Soluvet powder (a vitamin supplement) over the soaked seed prior to feeding. The first of the youngsters left the nest at 31 days and the remainder fledged within the following two days.
Chisholm, AH. 1948 Bird Wonders of Australia (Third Edition). Angus & Robertson, Sydney, Australia.
Forshaw, J M. & Cooper, WT. 1981 Australian Parrots (Second Revised Edition). Lansdowne Editions. Melbourne, Australia.