Why Eucalyptus is to Budgerigars what Vegemite is to Australians
By Peter Bennett
February 1st, 2003
Every Friday evening, after we’ve eaten, the kids and I always go around to Mom’s house. The kids go for the candy and I go for...well, I don’t know, she’s my mom and she has to have someone to be her kid once a week I guess. There’s something about the smell of my mom’s house, I’ve never been able to put my finger on it but it’s that kind of Granny smell I’ve come across many times in the houses of elderly ladies. It’s a sort of amalgam of boiled milk, musty curtains, slightly stale canned cat food and Ford Edsel glove boxes.
It’s a generic sort of smell like an end of the week garbage can. No matter what you put in your garbage can, at the end of the week it’s guaranteed to end up smelling the same as it did last week. I’ve been in Italian old ladies homes in Italy where you’d expect to get an ephemeral whiff of oregano or something but no, just that same generic granny smell.
I’m sure the house used to smell different when I was raised in it. I can’t remember what it smelled like then but I just know that somehow that smell is imprinted deep within my olfactory nerves and, if I ever smell it again, what brain cells I still have left will take me straight back home.
Don’t get me wrong, Mom’s house isn’t what you’d call smelly. There’s a warm friendly smell about it. Of course, I don’t know what Granddad’s houses smell like or how our house smells to my mom.
A few weeks ago the three of us stood in the hallway taking off our coats and there was a strange noise coming from the kitchen. It sounded like somebody doing short, staccato bursts on a tambourine but with the volume turned down real low. The kids knew what it was straight away. "You got a budgie, Gran?"
And there it was, in the cage next to the fridge where the canary used to be. “Where’s the canary Mom?” I asked. "In the trash," she whispered. I was never a fan of the canary but I thought she could have at least have gone over to the park and dug a hole for it. I couldn’t help wondering whether her garbage can would end up smelling different this week but I didn’t broach the subject.
My kids by this stage were yelling "Ozzie Ozzie, Ozzie," at the budgerigar.
"What’s with the Ozzie business" I said.
"He’s an Australian" said Tim.
"What makes you think that?"
"All budgies are Ozzies, Dad," said Nikki. "That’s where they come from."
I must admit that I didn’t know that budgies were Australian but I thought that there was a chance she was wrong and if I went the right way about it they’d learn something from some source other than a video game.
"Bulldust" I said, they’re English, European. They both jumped on me, took the bait straight down and told me they’d prove me wrong when we got home. I’ve learned to play my kids like fishes, all I have to do is challenge them on something they’re sure about and they go straight to the Encarta CD encyclopedia or get on the net (never a book unfortunately) and learn all there is to know about a subject to prove me wrong.
As P. J. O’Rourke said in the title of one of his books, "Old Age and Guile Beats Youth and a Bad Haircut."
It was in this way that they learned to use the word parasite in its correct context. In fact they became experts on parasites. That all came from a conversation over breakfast in which they referred to someone as a parasite and I told them the guy had never lived in France.
"What’s it gotta do with France?"
"That’s where Paris is my boy, Parasites are the people who live in Paris – you’ve got the wrong word."
By the time I got home from work I was an object of ridicule but they’d learnt a lot about parasites. Mind you, the system did backfire with the word "flog" which I told them had two meanings. The alternative meaning, I said, was a species of Chinese adult tadpole. They went through all four of our dictionaries before they labeled me a racist pig.
Their grandma told them she’d been waiting for them to visit because she thought they’d like to choose a name for the budgie. It was agreed that, as an expatriate, the bird should be christened with an Australian name. My remark that if it had have been a Crow we could have called him Russell didn’t go down too well and mom had never heard of Russell Crowe anyway.
The person who’d given mom the budgie had told her that it was a girl. I was thinking along the lines of Olivia, as in Newton John or Helen, as in Reddy but the kids were into Natalie, as in Imbruglia and Kylie, as in Minogue. I removed myself from the discussion and, since mom wasn’t offering, made myself a cup of coffee.
On the way home the kids asked if we could have a budgie in our house but I stood firm in my refusal citing all sorts of things from animal rights to deriving old ladies of avian companionship. They didn’t ask me again but on Saturday morning they went out shopping with their mom and came home with one. They called it Ozmosis.
"So what are you going to feed Ozmosis on?" I asked.
"We’ve bought seed mix and cuttlefish bone and a Millet spray and he’ll eat lettuce."
"Lettuce, how Australian is lettuce?"
"They have lettuce in Australia."
"Yes but I’ll lay you 10:1 that lettuce isn’t Australian. If you’re so sure budgies are Australian why don’t you feed the poor thing Australian food. How would you like to be taken to another planet where humans have never lived before and fed on something totally strange you never knew existed. You’d be hanging out for a Big Mac wouldn’t you? You’ll have to save up for a barbie and throw shrimps on it"
There was a stunned silence. All the rest of Saturday and most of Sunday the Great Australian Budgie Food Search progressed. And full credit to them, they worked hard at it. Yes, the budgerigar did turn out to be an Australian bird but the strange thing about it is that Australians have forgotten this themselves. The bird lives in the Outback and in the deserts and hardly any Australians have never seen a wild one even though there are hundreds of thousands of them out there. Australians, contrary to their popular image, are the most urbanized people on earth and few of them ever see the desert or the Outback. There are only 20 million Australians and they live for the most part in seven cities in a land as big as the USA!
In around 1840 budgerigars were found by a British naturalist named Gould who took a few back to England. There it was found that they could indeed live on lettuce and a whole range of other things when they didn’t have their proper native foods to eat. If they couldn’t have adapted to those European foods they wouldn’t have survived to become the world’s most popular cage bird and Australia’s largest unrecognized export. In its native habitat the budgie eats Eucalyptus leaves but it was too cold for them to grow in Britain.
When the budgie arrived back on Australian shores it had been modified more than Bruce Willis. It had gone through a selective breeding program that gave it a whole range of colors besides its natural green. Australians didn’t recognize this native son and they him fed as per the instruction book on foods which were nothing like his native grasses and Eucalyptus leaves. The bird had undergone a complete cosmetic makeover outside the country.
Tim and Nikki found that wild budgies have a very limited diet. They eat only three or four varieties of grass seeds for their general sustenance because, where they live, not much else grows save for the odd clump of spinifex. Every year in the Australian Outback these little green birds die in flocks of upwards of ten thousand when they can’t find water. But before they succumb they can last for weeks in the dry Australian deserts by taking in moisture from Eucalyptus leaves. Even then there are only a handful of Eucalyptus species that budgies will eat out of several hundred.
So much for the Australian budgerigar’s diet but the kid’s research tuned up something even more curious. The Australian human diet. Vegemite, that salt flavored axle grease that expatriate Aussies all over the world go into raptures about, has no real, indigenous Australian content in it at all.
Australians, i.e. the white ones, who have been kicking around there for about 200 years don’t eat a single thing that’s Australian. Everything they eat comes from an agricultural system based on the importation of seeds or stock. They eat fruits and vegetables from all over the world but they haven’t developed a single, indigenous staple crop in all the time they’ve been there. Nor have they domesticated a single Australian animal. They eat pork, beef, chicken, lamb and all sorts but nothing that’s Australian. It’s a very rare Aussie that’s ever tasted a kangaroo, possum, wallaby, frill necked lizard, crocodile or Tasmanian Devil. Even the Australian fish farming industry is based on imported species. Only one Australian harvestable crop has so far been developed and that’s the Macadamia nut. This nut, however, was taken to Hawaii where it was developed by Americans!
All this made me think that Australians traveling abroad would come across foods from all over that were entirely familiar to them because they don’t eat anything native from back home anyway. But what about the poor budgerigar who used to dine on nothing but Australian cuisine? If the smell of my moms house is imprinted on my olfactory nerves after only a couple of decades, what about a whole species that had actually evolved with its food and was then removed from it never to smell it again.
Wendy pulled me aside "You’re getting too interested, too involved. This is the kids thing. If you start to become interested in their budgie they’ll lose interest. You mustn’t get ahead of them. They want to be the experts." She was right. Once I hone in on a thing I can’t stop.
I waited until they went to bed and then got on the net. I looked everywhere for someone who sold Eucalyptus food for budgies. I found lots of articles by experts saying that Eucalyptus leaves were just what was needed for budgies but nobody was selling them. One search string eventually turned up an Australian guy at www.budgieworld.net who didn’t claim to be an expert on budgies but he’d spent time in the Outback with Australian Aborigines. He’d rediscovered the budgie/Eucalyptus relationship some years ago simply through observation and he began selling Eucalyptus leaves.
There’s something I like about Aussies. I think it’s their no bulldust, non politically correct approach to things. I like that crocodile man Steve Irwin who doesn’t spend half the program talking. He just sneaks up on anything he can find that’s bigger and more dangerous than himself and jumps off the side of the boat onto it. I telephoned this Aussie budgie man and he was one of those "no bulldust in the bush" Aussies too.
"Listen mate", he said. "There’s an enormous bloody multi million dollar industry out there sellin’ bloody budgie tucker talkin’ about bloody thiamin an riboflavin and all sorts of chemicals and crap. There’s more budgie diets than you can poke a stick at and when they get sick there’s all sorts of medicines and recipes to put ‘em back on the perch.
For every Australian livin’ in Australia there’s more than two budgies livin’ in cages outside Australia. All a budgie needs to cure just about everythin’ that can ‘appen to ‘im is its bloody natural tucker – Eucalyptus leaves. It’s a natural Viagra and a natural Prozac all rolled into one. If you give any old budgie anywhere in the world the right kind of Eucalyptus leaf it gets real chirpy and never gets crook"
"Never gets what?"
"Crook – sick, ill."
"Oh. And you set up in business by just exporting fresh leaves did you?"
"Well, it worked OK for Sir Walter Raleigh didn’t it?"
"Sir Walter Raleigh, the bloke who took back the tobacco leaves from America to England and got the ‘ole bloody world ‘ooked on ‘em"
I ordered a packet of Eucalyptus leaves without telling the kids. They’d already enlisted Wendy’s help to order a packet from someone they found on Ebay but hadn’t told me. The "bloke" from Australia was right. Ozmosis became incredibly chirpy after half a Eucalyptus leaf and so did Ozmeralda – mom’s budgie. They haven’t met yet but one day we may just see if the natural Viagra claim is valid.
Since Ozmosis and Ozmeralda came into our lives our dinnertime conversations are becoming, as Lewis Carol said "curiouser and curiouser."
"Dad, did you know that Australian Aborigines used to eat budgerigars?"
"Of course I did. You must have heard the expression "You Are What You Eat? Well, the word Aborigine actually means Budgerigar"
"You’re making it up. "
"Not at all. You’ve heard of Lance Eagleburger haven’t you? How do you think that family got its name?"
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