VAL COTTON’s love of budgerigars wasn’t part of her life-plan, but it’s certainly here to stay, she explains to Nick West
When her normal consignment of wild bird food failed to arrive via the post one week Val headed into town to the petshop next to Marks & Spencers, where she did her food shopping. She says she had absolutely no intention of buying a budgerigar. “I feed wild birds in the garden,” she explains. “I get 42 species of bird in my back garden and I usually order the food online, but this time it hadn’t arrived. So I went to Pets at Home, next door to M&S.”
Retired music teacher Val, who lives just outside Leeds in Yorkshire, says she used to go into petshops to check the birds were being well cared for.
However, on this occasion she went a tad further. She says: “If I go into a petshop, I always check the animals have got something to eat and drink. This petshop had an aviary in the corner with lots of budgies and lovebirds.
“But then on the wall, with the mice and rats, was a small cage with two budgies. I remember noticing them and thinking they seemed in love with each other.
“I didn’t buy them then, but I kept going back to the shop. Eventually, I said to the lad behind the counter: ‘I hope no one buys just one of them.’ This got me thinking and so to save them from being separated, I bought them both.”
That fateful day set Val on a path to becoming something of budgie rescuer and breeder. Pretty soon, she found herself buying other birds that she felt were misfits. “They told me those first two birds were young, but one was old and very wheezy,” she says. “I called him Blue Boy. He didn’t live for very long, unfortunately. What I discovered was that people actually take budgies back to the shop when they’ve had enough of them. And so I used to buy the miserable-looking ones who were on their own.”
Val says she’s not really a rescuer, in the strict sense of the word, because her budgies were being fed and looked after when she bought them. She says: “I bought two which had broken wings. Nobody wanted them and the shop had had them for ages, so I bought them. Then there was another four which came from a breeder who was getting rid of his birds and couldn’t sell his last four budgies, so he gave them to a shop. They were used to living in an aviary, so they were really miserable in their little cage. And so I bought those as well.
“I got to about 20 budgies, buying them in this way. And even though no one wants these birds and sometimes the shop is going to put them down, they still charge me full price. Half my budgies came from pretty awful situations where they didn’t have much future.”
She laughs when she says this, because her many rescue missions for miserable budgies have not only cost her full price at the shops but there’s been the some huge vets bills. “Yes, the petshop always charges me full price, between £14 and £20 a bird,” she confirms.
“So I pay in full and then have to go straight off to the vets with it. Although even my vets in Shipley have brought budgies to me! They brought me Jerry, who was just a baby. She’d been handed in. She was very friendly because I think she was looking for her parents and brothers and sisters.”
If you want a job done...
Val built her own bird shed and outside aviary even though she’d never done any DIY in her life. “I spent all summer doing it, as I had too many birds to now keep in the house,” she says. “I attached an outside flight and got them lots of toys. I’d never used or bought a drill in my life. When you’re on your own, you have to just get on and do things. I really enjoyed making it. However, it’s getting a bit overcrowded now. I built it for 16 birds and got up to 52, but am now down to 44.”
Now keeping and breeding budgies has taken over Val’s life. And she says she finds it a bitter sweet experience, because before she kept birds she was always travelling. “I used to do a round-the-world trip every year,” she says. “It was fantastic. I used to go away in October and come back in January. I can highly recommend it. You can buy a round the world ticket for about £700 and you can do as many stops as you want, provided you don’t go back on yourself.
“The only places I haven’t been to are India and Pakistan, and the Middle East. One of my favourites is New Zealand. And I love Norway. I’m hoping to go and live there.
“I’m still open to taking more birds in, but the one thing about keeping birds that has got me down is that I can’t take a break. I can’t go anywhere. I’ve not been away for one day since I got the budgies.”
Despite her frustrations, Val doesn’t regret become a budgerigar keeper. She says: “I resent the fact that I can’t travel. But I don’t blame the birds. I love them. But they have also brought me heartache, when they die. I get really attached to them.
“The trouble is some of my birds are getting old and it’s heartbreaking when you lose them. I’m not a proper breeder and I don’t just see them as a number. I’ve got four in the house now. My lady grey, one of my original budgies, is with me now. She’s absolutely gorgeous.”
Val intends to take her budgies with her to Norway, where she used to work in her summer holidays. “I speak Norwegian. I love the place,” she says simply. “I’ll take the budgies with me. They’re such fun and they interact with you. They’re a welcome addition to my life although I’d still like to get away. But I’ve no plans to get rid of the birds. I spend hours out there with them. It’s like a full-time job. I’m prepared to suffer and not to travel. You can’t really do anything else can you?”
Fighting off illness
VAL’S resolve and pocket were sorely tested when one of her birds contracted psittacosis and another died of megabacteria. “One of my birds, which I got from a breeder, and whose grandparents came from a very well known German breeder in Munich, suddenly died,” she recalls. “I sent it for a post mortem and I was absolutely stunned when it came back that he had psittacosis.
“It’s extremely serious. Most people will cull all their birds and it’s transmittable to humans, and can be fatal.
“I had no idea where it came from as I hadn’t brought any birds in for over a year. So I had to give them all antibiotics – at £8 a sachet. It cost me £600. I lost four birds. I clean everything out, every day. It’s still a complete mystery over where it came from.”
Nick West is the deputy editor of Cage & Aviary Birds.