Tips for Caring for Your First Pet Budgie (Parakeet)
Budgies, which are more commonly known as parakeets, are excellent starter birds for those who have never owned a pet bird and would like to have a feathered friend. They generally have a cheerful disposition, are not as demanding as many larger birds, and are relatively hardy. As single birds, they make good companions and enjoy interacting with their owners. Anyone who is willing to learn about these bubbly little birds and their care should be able to bring one home and have several years of companionship with their new pet.
A Little Bit About the Bird
Budgerigars, or "budgies" for short, are natives of Australia. Though they are commonly referred to as parakeets, this term can actually apply to a number of parrot species. The two types of domestic budgies are the British budgerigar and the "regular" budgerigar. The British budgie is a much larger bird than its regular cousin. In this article I will be focusing on the regular sort of budgerigar, as this is the variety most commonly available in the United States.
Budgies are petite, hook-billed birds which, in captivity, live mainly on a diet of seeds, fresh fruits, and veggies. They typically will live twelve to fourteen years, if you take good care of them. Budgies are flock birds in the wild, so if you want a budgie that will interact with you, you must keep only one bird to a cage. The object is for the bird to see you as its "flock". If it has other birds sharing its cage, your budgie will bond with them rather than you. Budgies are intelligent little creatures, and can be taught to talk and to do small tricks. Once again, it is necessary to keep the bird by itself in order for it to learn to talk or do tricks.
While wild budgies always have vibrant green body plumage and yellow heads, selective breeding in captivity has produced birds with quite a few variations in feather color and pattern. Most of these birds will be some shade of green or blue with an accent color, though there are budgies that are all-yellow or white.
Budgies can be sexed as adults by looking at their cere, which is the little band at the top of the beak where the nostrils are located. Male budgies will sport a blue or lavender-blue cere, while females' ceres are a dull brown or tan. Juvenile budgies all have pinkish-lavender ceres. It is not possible to sex a budgie on sight when they are a juvenile. If you are keeping a single bird, it does not matter whether you can tell its sex before you buy it, as both sexes can be equally affectionate.
Finding the Right Bird
As a prospective budgie owner, you have two options available as to where you can obtain a bird. The first option would to be to purchase it from a breeder. This can be an excellent choice, as these birds are often hand-raised and very used to human interaction. The drawback here, on the other hand, is that these birds are usually more expensive than those you would find at a pet store. You can find breeders in your area online, in the phone directory, or at a bird show. Make sure you buy from someone who is a reputable breeder, though, to avoid getting a bird that is ill or has physical problems.
Buying your bird from a good pet store is your second option. Pet store budgies, while cheaper than those bought directly from a breeder, are not always particularly friendly at first. This is due to the fact that many of them are raised without much human handling. When they are brought to the pet store, they are put in an aviary with a dozen other budgies and still are not handled. As flock birds they are content with other budgies and do not know what to make of people. In the end, this leaves you with a bird that is normally not ready to just hop on your finger. So when going to a pet store to purchase a budgie, know that you may have to work with it a while to get it to trust you and be finger-trained.
Whether you decide to buy from a breeder or a pet store, there are a few things which you should check before purchasing the bird:
- The area where the birds are kept should be clean and dry.
- The birds themselves should be free of any sign of illness (vents clean, eyes clear, ceres not crusty, no sign of mites, no labored breathing, no bird sitting very still in the corner by itself with its feathers ruffled up). Even if the bird you like is healthy, do not buy it if there are others in the pen or cage that appear to be ill.
- The bird you like should not have physical issues, such as an overgrown or crooked beak.
Things to Buy for Your Budgie
The most important thing you will buy for your bird is its cage. Since this is where it will spend the bulk of its time, a cage must be large enough for the bird to move about freely; otherwise, the bird will be an unhappy creature. At minimum, the cage should be 14" long x 11" wide x 12" high. Remember, once food dishes, perches, and toys are added, the actual space in which your pet has to move about will be diminished. Please resist the "starter kits" some pet stores offer if the cage they include is smaller than the above dimensions. I know it will seem like a good deal at the time, but it will not be good for your bird in the end. If you can afford an even larger cage, then get it. Your bird will thank you. We as humans go through busy times when we cannot give our pets as much playtime as they want/need, so if the bird has a bigger play-space it will not mind some alone-time quite so much. Whatever size cage you buy, make sure the bars are no more than half an inch apart. This will prevent your budgie from getting its head caught between the bars. Also, try to find one with bars made from heavy wire, as the bars tend to bend easily on cages with thin bars. Finally,a cage with a non-toxic coating on the bars is best as it prevents rust from developing.
Most cages come with one or two dowel-style perches. I recommend removing one of these perches, however, and replacing it with two or three other types of perches. Other types of perches available includenatural branch perches and shaped sand perches. The reason for this is your budgie needs a variety of differently-shaped perches on which to sit in order to keep its feet healthy. Straight dowels do not offer the shape variation that is necessary. The shaped, sand-covered perches have the added benefit of helping to keep the bird's claws trimmed (though toenail clipping will still be necessary from time to time).
The other thing that cages come equipped with is food and water dishes. You will also want to buy a separate cup in which you can put treat seed or fresh foods.
Buying a good budgie/parakeet food for your pet is essential. There are seed and pellet varieties on the market for budgies, and both have their pros and cons. In spite of all the choices available, I would suggest that as a first-time owner you stick with the food that the bird was already being fed when you bought it. Sometimes you can convert a bird from seed to pellets or vice versa, but it does not always happen and is better attempted by someone with experience. Your new bird may notice if you try to feed it a different brand of food and not eat it, so when you are starting out it is better to stick with what the bird already knows. You want to make your budgie's transition into your home as stress-free as possible.
Other accoutrements necessary for your bird are a cuttle bone or mineral treat, toys, and a cage skirt. The cuttle bone and mineral treat serve roughly the same purpose, which is to keep your bird's beak trimmed to the proper length. The toys are an important part of a budgie's existence. A bored bird is not a happy bird. If you want you budgie to interact with you, then avoid toys with mirrors, because it will think it has another bird in the cage and prefer the company of the "mirror bird". Some good toys that budgies like are little balls, twirly toys, rings, chew toys, and bells. My budgie loves bells, and almost all of his toys feature bells because of this. Do not be surprised, however, if your bird looks at a new toy as if it is enemy no. 1. The budgie is merely making sure the new addition to its cage is not going to eat it, and will usually warm up to the new plaything within a day or two (or three...). The cage skirt is for your benefit rather than the bird's. Like all types of pet birds, budgies can be a bit messy, so it is easier to keep the mess contained to the cage when there is a skirt on the outside of the cage.
There are a few items that you can skip buying and use a substitute at home to save money. The first would be a cage cover; they look nice but a clean towel does the trick for putting your bird to bed at night. The second thing to skip is corn cob litter or cage liners to put in the bottom of the cage. Newspaper or paper towels work just as well as the store-bought items (do not use newspaper, though, if your bird's cage does not have a grating in the bottom that separates him from contact with the newsprint). The final item that you most likely will not need to buy is a stand. An end table, nightstand, or some other flat surface where the cage cannot be knocked over is sufficient. The exception to this would be if you have cats in the house (or dogs that like to chase birds); a stand that keeps the cage well out of the reach of a curious feline is best.
Life With Your New Pet
When you bring home your new budgie, set its cage up first, before taking the bird out of the carrier in which you brought it home. The location of the cage within your home is an important thing to decide. The kitchen is generally not a good place, due to the high level of activity in the room and the potential hazard of toxins being released into the air from singed non-stick pans. Many kitchens also have doors leading to the outside in or near them, which can cause drafts. You do not want your bird to sit in a draft, as it is not good for its health. A bedroom, office, or corner of a family living area are the best places to put a bird cage. If you find noise distracting, though, you may not want to put the bird near a home work space. Budgies tend to be chatterboxes, which makes them entertaining; this can become obnoxious, however, if you need quiet! Not all budgies are this way, but quieter birds seem to be the exception. You will not know until you get the bird settled in and used to its surroundings whether it will be noisy or a moderate twitter-bug. Do not always assume that covering the bird will make it quiet until you want to get up in the morning; mine has been known to start his chirping at five a.m. (granted, this is normally because he hears someone up already).
Once you have found spot for the cage, put it together and stick whatever absorbent material you have chosen to use in the bottom. Place the perches next, with consideration as to what configuration will allow the bird to move to move about the cage freely. Make sure to put perches by the food and water cups (I stick the one long dowel-rod perch in front of the dishes in order to leave more play room in the rest of the cage). Know that you can always rearrange the perches if necessary. Add the toys to the cage after this, along with the mineral treat or cuttle bone. Fill the food dish and water dish.
The best way to put your new friend in its home is to take the top off of the cage and gently place the bird inside of it. Only do this if the bird's wings are already clipped, though! If the budgie's wings are not clipped, or the cage top does not come off easily, then put it in the cage through the door. On a cage that has a "guillotine-style" door (one that slides up and down), it is better to first secure the door in the "up" position with a clip or twist-tie so as to avoid accidentally dropping the door on budgie's head. (Make sure you secure the door this way any time you want to move the bird in or out of its cage.) Partially cover the cage, and give the bird a day or two to adjust to its new surroundings. This means do not take it out of its cage, put your hand in its cage, or even talk to it too much (especially in a loud voice) during this time. It will most likely be freaking out at being put in a totally new environment and will need some space. Birds and stress do not go well together, so give your pet the peace and quiet it needs.
After your bird has become accustomed to its new abode, you can begin to interact with it. If the bird is already finger-trained and has its wings clipped, you can easily take it out of the cage and start getting acquainted. If it has its wings clipped but is not finger-trained, teaching the bird to "step up" onto your finger requires just a little bit of time and persistence.
First, put your hand slowly into the cage, approaching the bird from below rather than above (it thinks you are an attacker coming to eat it if your hand swoops down on it). Some birds will not like your hand in the cage at all, so you may have to spend the first day or two just getting it used to your hand being in the cage. Once the bird is comfortable with your hand being near it, take your index finger and place it gently against the bird's front, right above its feet. As you do this, say in a soft voice, "step up". The gentle pressure against its front will usually cause the bird to crawl on your finger. If not, then try again a few more times. The point of saying "step up" is that you want the bird to learn to get onto your finger without having to put pressure on its chest. Budgies can master this trick in a day, but it may take more time than that with your bird. If it does not learn the first day, do not push it, but let it rest and try again the next day. I do not recommend that a first-time bird owner take their budgie out of the cage unless its wings are clipped. It can easily injure itself running into things if it flies away from you. If the store from which you purchased it would not or could not clip its wings, try to find a friend that has experience clipping wings or go to an avian vet. If these options do not exist for you, you can learn to do it yourself, but, please, be very careful and make sure you understand thoroughly what you need to do before attempting it. You can seriously injure your bird if you are not careful.
Once you and your budgie have become friends, your bird will enjoy having playtime with you or simply sitting on your shoulder. Giving your pet some "shoulder-time" while you read or watch TV is a great way to bond. An old towel works as a protection against bird droppings on your clothes; make sure it is a dishcloth sort of towel rather than a bath towel, however, since a budgie's little talons can get stuck in the loops of a bath towel.
One thing you should never do to your bird while interacting with it is kiss it on the beak. Human saliva is toxic to budgies. You should also avoid using aerosols or other types of sprays round the bird; budgie's lungs are delicate and breathing in those sorts of things can be harmful to your pet.
It is best to find a good avian vet as soon as possible after purchasing your budgie. Budgies are relatively hardy for their size, but you should always keep a lookout for signs of illness and contact your vet if you suspect your bird may be ill. Signs of illness include wheezing, labored breathing, runny eyes or cere, a crusty cere, loose droppings, a loss of feathers (with no new growth—molting is normal), abnormal growths on the head, not eating, and sitting very still and quiet in a corner with ruffled feathers. While this is a list of some of the most common signs of sickness, it is not complete. As you get to know your bird, you will notice any abnormalities in its behaviour. This will enable you to act quickly if you think it is unwell. Quick action is necessary as illnesses in these little birds are often fatal if left untreated.
Feeding your bird fruit, veggies, and treats in addition to its regular food is a great idea as it adds variation and extra nutrients to your pet's diet. Make sure you put these items in a separate cup from the regular food, and limit the amount of treat seed and millet you give your bird. Budgies can become overweight, and extra weight is not healthy for the bird. Fresh greens like spinach and arugula, and fruits like apples and oranges (sans the seeds) are all budgie-safe fresh foods that can be given in moderate amounts. If you are not buying organic produce, make sure to thoroughly wash items that cannot be peeled in order to remove pesticide residue. Since not all fruits and veggies are safe for your bird to eat, please check out this list before trying any items other than the ones I have mentioned here. Avoid giving your bird "people food", as most of it is entirely unhealthy for birds and some things can also be toxic. When feeding your bird, give it enough seed in its cup to last a couple of days or so and then re-fill it when it has eaten most of the seed (make sure not to mistake the seed hulls the bird leaves behind as uneaten food). Change the water at least every other day. If your budgie seems to enjoy bathing in its drinking water, try putting a shallow dish in the cage now and then and encourage it to use that instead. Budgies do not need to bathe as much as some birds because they live in an arid climate in the wild.
If there is a grate in the bottom of the cage, then the absorbent material in the tray should only need to be changed once a week since the bird has no contact with the tray. If there is no grating, then change the material in the tray every couple of days. The whole cage should be wiped down once a month. Every few months it is good to take the cage apart and wash it thoroughly with mild dish soap to remove the gunk that builds up around the edges and in the corners.
My budgie has been a wonderful little pet and I will always be glad that I decided to bring him into my life. He is a sweet creature that makes me smile at his antics and happy chatter. If you are looking for a pet that is small, cheerful, affectionate, and relatively easy to keep, then I most heartily recommend that you welcome one of these birds into your home.