A small and enchanting book arrived at Starfish HQ recently. Called Budgerigar, it contains everything you ever wanted to know about this beautiful Australian parrot.
Its authors are veteran journalists Sarah Harris and Don Baker (who has a Perth link; he’s a former editor of The West Australian).
Sarah talks to The Starfish about the book:
What’s especially noteworthy about our little budgerigar?
The humble budgie represents Australia’s greatest diaspora, more ubiquitous than backpacking young hospitality staff and aspiring actors. This pocket-sized parrot is smart, hardy and the most adaptable bird around, capable of life-long learning and mimicking any form of vocal communication. It can literally talk in tongues and has much to teach us.
Who came up with the idea for the book; what inspired it?
The idea of a book on budgies was very much the brainchild of the wonderful Richard Walsh, the commissioning publisher at Allen & Unwin. We went in with a scattergun idea of a book about lesser-known historical Australian characters and events and he selected the budgie as the most unlikely phoenix from the ashes of our pitch.
Richard set us the topic as a challenge to our authorly pretentions and we were all delighted to discover there was such a big, largely untold back story. He was very tickled by some of the strange twists and turns as it unfolded. You couldn’t make up the story about the Norwegian vet who specialises in performing what basically amounts to liposuction on fat budgies.
How long did it take you to put it together?
From the time we first spoke to Richard, following a generous introduction by former West Australian journalist and author Robert Wainwright, to the date of publication it was two years.
You have the most extensive bibliography; did you and Don spend months reading, popping into libraries and interviewing experts?
Don is definitely the man when you want to take a deep dive into any subject. He ferreted out every budgie reference in Christendom and beyond. We ploughed through newspaper archives, joined every state library in Australia and quizzed and interviewed a wide birdy brains trust.
Did you both learn much about our feathered friends during the research?
We learned new respect for birds generally and parrots, especially budgies, in particular. In a weird way the fact we were not committed “birdy people” already helped us to convey their remarkable qualities to the general reader.
What’s something that surprised you?
The sheer numbers that were shipped off-shore from the mid-1800s when John Gould landed the first live pair in England to the early 1900s when restrictions on export were finally imposed. Ships sailed with 20,000-plus budgies at a time. They became a form of currency almost, with even the lowliest steerage passengers carrying a few birds to trade on their arrival in the Old Country.
Some people have trained their budgies to say some pretty odd things: what’s something memorable?
During WWII people trained their budgies to say lots of patriotic things like ‘Down with Hitler’ or ‘Shoot Goering’, but our favourite stories of talking budgies relate to them rattling out their name and address after becoming lost, which led to many happy reunions with their owners.
Does a project like this bring the two of you closer together? Much debate as as to what to include or leave out?
We’ve been partners in life and work for nigh on 26 years, including when we went off on a pretty unlikely tangent as greengrocers. It’s often said most journos have a book in them, hopefully as two journos we might have a few more.
Do you own any budgies?
Neither of us have ever had so much as one budgie between us, even as kids. Now we would never own just one budgie because they are such social creatures. Society now has some understanding about the sentience of larger living creatures and animal rights, but birds and smaller animals continue to be commodified with little regard to their welfare.
How many Australians own budgies?
Census questions on household pets do not break birds down into species, but the latest 2019 survey of pets by Animal Medicines Australia estimates the number of pet birds at 5.6 million. Budgies account for the majority of those. They remain the number one most popular pet bird on the planet.
You interviewed several breeders for this book: other than their fondness for budgies, do they all have a particular trait that stands out like a bright yellow feather?
They are incredibly generous with their time and really, really know their stuff and want to encourage others in a hobby which for generations of Australians was their first introduction of animal husbandry and caring for animals. They set high standards for the welfare of their birds and want to educate and encourage others to follow in the fancy.
Any more book collaborations in the pipeline?
We are already working away on another project, but not sure when or even if it will fly, so to speak, with publishing trying to regroup just like other industries in the wake of COVID-19. Maybe watch this space!