IT’S NOW OPEN season on ring-necked and monk parakeets, thanks to a decision by the Natural England quango. In practice this probably won’t be as apocalyptic as some people expect. Under the same regulations crows and magpies can be shot if they’re causing damage to crops, and there’s no shortage of them.
While free-living parakeets muscle in on suburban London’s auditory scene with their urgent squawking, another member of the parrot family is in unremarked decline. Budgerigars were first brought to Britain from Australia in the early 19th century, and their popularity rose dramatically in the first half of the following century. By the 1950s it was estimated that around four million were kept as pets, eclipsing other cage birds such as finches and canaries. Into the summers of the 1970s their calls could often be heard in the street as living-room windows were opened and cages placed on ledges and verandas.
Perhaps part of the widespread appeal of budgies to ordinary English people lay in those qualities which mirrored our preferred self-image. They weren’t graceful birds or melodious singers, but they were homely, busy and chatty. Budgies were like Tolkein’s idealised portrait of the English as hobbits with their stocky little bodies, brisk movements and impression of perseverance. Or, as the common complaint went, they never bloody shut up.
The budgie cult reached a peak in 1958 when the Newcastle-bred Sparkie Williams won an international talking bird contest with his repertoire of nursery rhymes and hundreds of words. The remaining four years of his life were filled with media appearances and solitary millet binges, and Parlophone released a record of his utterances with an orchestral backing. This website loads a recording of the B-side.
Nowadays budgies number less than one-and-a-half million in Britain and their popularity seems to have fallen even faster in London. It’s rare to hear the chatter of budgies from someone’s house or flat. They’re from a time when people looked towards small and familiar things to find consolation.