In 1938 Neville Cayley wrote “The Budgerigar, quite apart from its beauty and attractive mannerisms, possesses every attribute necessary to make it an ideal subject for breeding experiments. As an aviary bird it has no rival, its adaptability, hardiness and free-mating propensities, place it in a class quite apart from any other species.” Since then the humble Budgie has spread all over the globe and has been developed into numerous colour and feather mutations, to the extent that these domesticated birds now have little in common with their wild cousins. In more recent years, many aviculturists have endeavoured to breed wild-type budgies and, to differentiate them from the domestic variety, these budgies tend to be referred to as “Shell Parrots”.
Distribution and Habitat
The Budgerigar is distributed throughout most of Australia, with the exception of the northern and eastern coastlines, the far south-west of WA and Tasmania. They tend to prefer arid to semi-arid grasslands and woodlands but never move far from surface water. Budgies are a highly nomadic species following the rains and subsequent seeding grasses; a plentiful supply of the latter will stimulate the birds to breed. At times of drought, flocks of 1000 or more birds may be seen, circling and wheeling over any remaining surface water.
While there are multiple colour variations available today, I would agree with Mark Shephard’s comment “I think the natural green of the wild Budgerigar is still the most beautiful colour of this bird”.
Averaging17 to 20cm in length, the male Shell Parrot is a bright green bird with black barring across the wings and upper-parts, a yellow throat & forehead and a blue cere above the beak. The hen is similar in colour but a breeding female has a brown cere (a non-breeding female can have a violet cere). Immature birds are duller in colour, have a barred forehead and a pinkish-violet cere. Adult plumage is obtained by 4 months but birds can be sexed earlier than this by the colour of the cere.
I remember standing near a tree outside Alice Springs and watching a flock of 50 or more budgies fly in. Try as I might, I could only see one male bird sitting out on a branch, chattering away – the rest had vanished into the foliage! Aside from it’s camouflage colouration, the configuration of the wild budgie is well adapted to survival, being a lithe bullet shaped bird capable of flying and wheeling rapidly in large flocks. In aviary situations, even 4 to 6 birds will usually stay together in a flock, and will fly from one end of the aviary to the other in a group. In addition, they tend to sit leaning forward on the branch ready for flight, rather than the more upright stance of the domestic budgie.
Unfortunately some bird dealers do not differentiate between green domesticated budgies and Shell Parrots so birds should only be obtained from a reputable source, either bird dealer or private aviculturist.
A good quality budgie seed mix forms the staple part of the Shell Parrot’s diet. In addition grit mix, seeding grasses (especially appreciated), green food, apple and soaked seed should be offered. Gum branches provide both food and entertainment, as do large seed bells or rings. Of course, fresh water should be available at all times.
Shell Parrots are said to breed best in a small flock of 3 or more pairs, but one of my pairs ONLY bred when housed as a single pair. As a general rule it is dicey to keep budgies with finches and other small birds, but my Shell Parrots happily coexist with both Emblemas and Chestnut-breasted Manikins. Competition for nesting sites can be a problem, even when an abundant choice is offered, and this can extend to small parrots such as Neophemas. They are active birds so should not be kept with anything that is easily intimidated. If they are to be kept in a mixed collection, careful observation is essential to stop problems developing.
My Shell Parrots tend to breed mainly in autumn and spring, avoiding the hotter drier months of summer but in some situations birds have been known to breed all year around. My birds use a variety of nesting boxes from traditional budgie boxes, small parrot boxes and hollow logs with a small side entrance. Some aviculturists fix a wooden spout over the entrance hole of a budgie nesting box, to make it more attractive to the birds. The general rule for budgies should be followed – at least 3 boxes for every 2 pairs of birds. Even then frequently 2 hens will become obsessed with one box and the subsequent fighting can be quite vicious. Nesting material is not required and not appreciated, as the hen will try to remove it from the box before nesting. Budgie boxes are made with a shallow depression in the nesting chamber but other boxes can be modified in this way. Up to 5 or 6 eggs may be laid which the hen alone incubates for about 18 days. Chicks will fledge after 30 to 35 days and often become independent within 1 week.
Shell Parrots offer something a little bit different that is within the price range and expertise of the average aviculturist. Give them a try – you’ll never look at budgies in quite the same way again!
Lendon A. H. “Australian Parrots in Field and Aviary”. Angus and Robertson Publishers, Australia. 1979.
Shephard M. “Aviculture in Australia”. Black Cockatoo Press, Victoria. 1989