Dear Readers, when I was growing up we had a variety of pets – a cat called Fuzzy, a dog called Spock, and a blue budgie called Fella. Fella lived in a cage on the sideboard for the whole of his life – we feared that if we let him out, either one of the other pets would get him or we’d never be able to get him back. My Mum remembered another caged bird that had escaped and had been chased around the room to try to recapture him until he’d died of fright. So Fella was permanently incarcerated in a cage about the size of a small suitcase.
As a child, I don’t remember him seeming to be unhappy. He loved his millet, and would chirp away to himself. But now and again he would go into a frenzy, squawking and flapping his wings, as if remembering what it was to fly. Feathers and dried droppings would go in all directions, and this was usually a cue to change the sandpaper on the bottom of the cage and generally tidy him up.
Fella must have died, but I don’t recall when – he didn’t come with us when we moved house when I was fifteen, so it must have been before then. I do remember that as I’d grown up, I started to have an aversion to keeping birds in cages – it seemed such a sad and limited life, such an imposition. We had the chance to enjoy the bird, but they got to do so little of what they had evolved to do. What depth of frustration was behind Fella’s ‘mad half hours’ as we used to call them?
And I was reminded of this again when I read this article about wild budgerigars in Australia. After the droughts and bushfires of the past few years, there has been a bumper wet season, and the birds are gathering in flocks up to 100,000 strong to drink, feed, pair up and make nests in the old red gum trees that they rely on (budgies are cavity-nesters, so need dead wood to nest in).
Steve Pearce, the photographer, describes how the sheer number of birds causes the air pressure to change, and the ‘whoosh’ as they fly past.
What a rich and varied life these small parrots must lead! Of course, there are risks from hawks and other predators, from climate change and habitat destruction, and yet I have an inkling that any caged bird would prefer to take their chances living as evolution has designed them to do.
We yearn for contact with nature, and yet so often we want it on our terms. When I was older and had money of my own, I kept reptiles and amphibians for a while. Sadly, you learn how to care for these creatures, with their complex needs, by trial and error, and it didn’t take me long to realise that my error could easily result in the death of a lizard or a frog, and so I stopped. Plus, where did these animals come from? Some may have come from breeders who were more experienced in the ways of animal husbandry than me, but how many were illegally harvested from the wild?
I think there has been something of a shift in the whole idea of pet keeping – more people take on rescue cats and dogs, and people who keep other animals get better advice about what their pets need. And it isn’t about loving them – I loved Fella, and my reptiles, and it didn’t give them a better life, because I didn’t know how to, and I didn’t take the time to find out. Our sense of entitlement about the natural world, the idea that it is here to serve us and that that is its only value, is at the root of so much of what is wrong, from climate change to factory farming to the abandonment of ‘lockdown pets’ now that people are going back to work. I applaud that so many more people are thinking about these questions, and are considering other ways to be in relationship with the natural world. A change of attitude can’t come soon enough.
And if you would like to actually see the budgerigar murmuration, head over to this link to see it all happening….