At the time of the transition, the hobby was at low ebb. Disease—possibly the Asian bird flu—had reduced the flock from 80 birds to 12.
“He was hoping to get rid of them and just be done,” David said, then added with a smile: “I didn’t let him do that. He just kind of gave them to me and told me it was my deal now.”
David was a high school freshman at the time. More than sentimental attachment, he said he was interested in the genetics that are involved in producing the multi-colored birds.
“I’ve always like plants and animals,” said David, who declared a biology major as a freshman at Tabor College.
In that regard, the enterprise has paid dividends.
“I learned about Punnett squares—that’s were you line up the dominant and recessive genes and find out what the possible outcome of a certain pairing would be,” David said. “I learned about that (at home) even before we learned about it in high school.
“I’ve learned a lot about the sex-link gene, how different carotenoids and melanin make different colors, and about feather structures,” he added.
“We’ve read up quite a bit about (the birds’) behavior in the wild, and that has helped a lot. We try to make it more natural (in the parakeet shed). It works better. They stay healthier.”
Native to Australia
The name of the enterprise, Daves’ Budgie Barn, incorporates the duplicity of their first names, and the word “Budgie” is short for “budgerigar,” which is the more specific name for these birds, which are native to the grasslands of Australia.
“It’s taken from an aborigine word that means ‘good eating’—so you can guess what they use them for,” David said with a smile.
In their native habitat, budgerigars come in only one color: green. That’s where the knowledge of genetics comes in handy. Parakeet growers breed the birds to produce a variety of color combinations as show birds and pets.
“Blues generally go quicker (in pet stores) than greens do,” Dave said. “People tend to like a lot of color. There are some variations of blue that turn to gray—but people don’t generally think that’s very colorful.”
David, who likes the gray coloring, added: “There are some blues with yellow faces that turn the body a turquoise color. They are really pretty. At the one pet shop, the blues are actually cost more than the greens.”
The Loewen try to sell 50 to 60 birds a year to a pet shop in Wichita. Their goal, though, is to breed their parakeets to a show-bird standard. While pet birds retail for between $18 and $20 these days, show birds sell for around $50.
They both say they’re not it in it for the money, though.
“We just enjoy them,” David said. “Some of them we try to sell—and we almost break even. That’s what makes it a hobby.”
Care and breeding
David physically tends to the birds about every other day—checking food and water and cleaning cages.
The birds feed primarily on millet and oats mixed with wild-game bird starter that David buys from the local feed mill. He augments their diet with “green food”—edible plants such as chickweed, spinach tops and dandelion leaves.
“It’s got more of the trace vitamins that they won’t get from dry feed, and also calcium,” David said.
He also makes mineral blocks out of plaster of Paris, salt and limestone.
“They chew on it,” he said. “It keeps their beaks from being overgrown, and it gives them same iodine and other trace minerals.”
Breeding occurs twice a year—once in spring and once in fall because of more favorable weather conditions.
“Those are kind of the two wet seasons around here, and they’re from Australia, where there’s only feed during the wet season,” David said. “So that’s when they tend to breed better. They’re a grassland bird and generally not a jungle bird.”
The birds are mixed by gender in the larger cages. The Loewens discovered that the socialization can better prepare the birds for breeding. The timetable for reproduction is controlled by the placement of nest boxes.
“They don’t have nest boxes in the cages, so there’s nowhere for (the females) to lay their eggs—the hens won’t allow the cocks to mate,” David said.
With access to a darkened nest box, the hens will lay an egg about every other day—but won’t incubate the first one until the second egg arrives. As a result, the eggs don’t hatch all at once, as they do for chickens. A parakeet nest can include a chick that is newly born and one born a couple of days earlier that may be five times larger.
Parakeets are unusual also because the eggs and chicks can be handled by humans with no adverse reaction from the mother.
“I don’t know if they can’t smell well, or if their maternal instincts are that strong, but you can look at their eggs and handle the babies and they don’t seem to care,” David said. “We’ve taken babies from different mothers (when a mother has died) and put them in the same nest, and they rear them.”
The young birds, fully feathered, are weaned at four to five weeks after birth. Pet stores prefer to buy the birds between six weeks and three months so they can be sold to customers before the birds turn six months old.
“Once they’re over six months, they’re tough to finger tame,” David said. “They’ll sit in a cage and be pretty, but they won’t make a good pet after that age.”
Cycle of popularity
The market price for parakeets has declined over the past 15 years or so, as the public’s fancy turned to cockatiels and other larger parrot-like birds. Show-bird parakeets that once brought $500 now bring $50.
But father Dave said he believes the parakeet will make a comeback someday.
“The thing about them is that they are parrots, they’re not like a canary—their tame-able and you can teach them to talk,” he said. “Kids get interested in them and want something to play with.”