Writers Go Forth. Launch. Promote. Party. is an online community set up on Facebook by my friend and fellow Transit Lounge author Kirsten Krauth (Almost a Mirror, 2020). Kirsten established the platform up to give writers with works coming out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic a chance to still enjoy some form of book promotion at a time when public talks, launches and other associated celebrations were not possible. During a recent call-out for posts from authors directly impacted by COVID-era publication, I chanced upon a post from Sarah Harris with a link to a book called Budgerigar. I started reading a sample on Google Books, and was so hooked, I went out and bought the book.
Budgerigar, sub-titled ‘How a brave, chatty and colourful little Aussie bird stole the world’s heart’, is co-authored by Sarah Harris and her partner Don Baker, described in their author blurb as ‘veteran journalists’. This background shows in their writing, which is engaging, well-researched and accessible — and they clearly have an eye for a good story. The book’s 25 thematic chapters are interspersed with extracts from bird books, magazines and newspapers, creating a conversational tone to the work.
Budgerigar both outlines the history of the bird, and uses the bird as a lens through which to view historical events. A bird’s-eye view, if you like.
A chapter called ‘Budgerigar Dreaming’ describes the significance of the bird–known as ngatijirri in Walpiri, dingleyerung in Noongar, and gidiyirrigaa in Wiradjuri–to Australia’s First Nations people as bellwethers and food, as well as ancestral spirits and constellations. The shipping of vast quantities of budgerigars, live and dead, from Australia to the UK aptly illustrates the colonial project of expansion, appropriation and dislocation. We learn of the budgerigar as status symbol, as fashion accessory, and as vector of zoonotic disease that bears an eerie resemblance to COVID-19. Budgerigars played a role in Allied war efforts by being trained to chant anti-Nazi slogans and were renowned for alerting their owners to incoming bombing raids. There are celebrity budgies, therapy budgies, fortune-telling budgies and ‘Budgezillas’, birds so inbred as to be unrecognisable to their wild Australian (distant) cousins.
The roll-call of the rich and famous who were devoted to their budgerigar companions is impressive, ranging from Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama and Marilyn Monroe to Vita Sackville-West and Betty Cuthbert, the latter quoted as saying, ‘They are my only love outside of running.’ Among the photographs included in the middle of the book is a smouldering black-and-white shot of Clint Eastwood in a tight polo shirt with two budgerigars on his shoulder.
There are aspects to the budgerigar’s tale which are disturbing. As Harris and Baker note, ‘Generation upon generation of captive and selective breeding has produced, at best, a much-loved and cosseted companion and, at worst, a feathered Frankenstein that’s not so much a bird as a caricature of the original wild creature.’ But they are careful not to judge their subjects, allowing the reader to reach their own conclusions about the good, the bad and the budgie (sorry!).
The final chapter, ‘Wild thing’, may well find you, like me, adding ‘Witness a budgerigar murmuration’ to your bucket list.
Budgerigar by Sarah Harris and Don Baker is published by Allen & Unwin, 2020.