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The Disappearance of the

What went wrong with what


was widely considered to be
one of the most successful
introduced bird populations
in North America?
Some people dont like budgies
The little yellow brats
They eat them up for breakfast
Or give them to their cats

he Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) is a small


(seven-inch, one-ounce) parakeet endemic to much
of the Australian interior. Budgerigars have been bred

in captivity since the 1840s and are the third most abundant
pet worldwide after the domestic cat and the domestic dog.
Despite their abundance in captivity, only one large and
persistent breeding population of Budgerigars (Budgies)
was ever established outside their native range. This population, in the Tampa Bay region located along Floridas central

from The Fat Budgie

Gulf coast, was founded by the early 1960s and persisted

John Lennon, 1965

for more than 50 years before recently becoming extirpated.

As the Budgerigars in west-central Florida represented the only large and persistent breeding population
found outside their native range, their extirpation
represents the loss of a regularly occurring species
from the Western Hemisphere. The history of Budgerigars in Florida proves well that even large and robust
populations of exotic birds can disappear decades
after their foundingoffering a cautionary note for
those who believe that populations of birds that
number in the hundreds of individuals should
be considered established. Hernando
Beach, Hernando County, Florida; March
2009. Photo by Reinhard Geisler.

Bill Pranty
Bayonet Point, Florida
billpranty@hotmail.com

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Birding august 2015

Budgerigar from the ABA Area


The earliest report of Budgerigars
in Florida came from Cooke and
Knappen (1940), who presented
no specific information. Based on
hearsay, earlier writers reported
that large numbers of Budgerigarsas many as 3,000 individuals at once!were released into
the St. Petersburg area beginning
in the 1950s (Lipp 1963, Shapiro
1979, Wenner and Hirth 1984).
Hundreds of free-flying Budgerigars were found in the St. Petersburg and New Port Richey areas
by the early 1960s, and through
natural spread and/or additional
releases, colonized other cities in

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the Tampa Bay region: Bradenton


by the mid-1960s, Sarasota and
Tampa by the late 1970s, and Hernando Beach by the early 1990s
(Pranty 2001, 2015).
Budgerigars were found in many
other Florida cities, such as Jacksonville, Gainesville, Winter Park,
Cocoa, Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie,
Fort Myers, West Palm Beach, Naples, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami
(Wenner and Hirth 1984, Pranty
2001). However, these flocks,
which usually numbered just a few
individuals, were short-lived and
presumably were never established
(Pranty 2015, contrary to Wenner

Although it was not rare to see flocks of


a few thousand Budgerigars perched
shoulder-to-shoulder on powerlines during the 1970s and early 1980s, the author
is not aware of any photograph that shows
such massive numbers. The photo of ca.
675 individuals in flight by Anne Shapiro
(1981) may represent the largest number
of Budgerigars captured in a single image
from Florida. By the time photography entered the digital realm, populations in the
state had disappeared or been reduced to
a few dozen individuals each. The images
in this article of Budgerigars in the Tampa
Bay region were chosen to illustrate certain aspects of their natural history and to
document their occurrence.

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D I S A P P E A R A N C E O F TH E B U DG ERI G A R

Being extremely social birds,


Budgerigars often flocked with
other species, which in Florida
usually meant doves, sturnids,
and icterids. Here, 21 Budgerigars share powerlines with
Rock Pigeons, European Starlings, and Brown-headed Cowbirds. New Port Richey, Pasco
County, Florida; November 1997.
Photo by Ken Tracey.

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and Hirth 1984 and Stevenson and


Anderson 1994). Wenner and Hirth
relied exclusively on hearsay data for
information on Budgerigars found
outside the Tampa Bay region, and
their informants often greatly overestimated the number of Budgerigars
present (in some cases, the informants may have misidentified other
species of parakeets). Wenner and
Hirth (1984) claimed that Budgerigars were common and breeding
along the southern Atlantic coast
from Fort Pierce to Miami.
In contrast, citing Christmas Bird
Count and other ornithological data,
I showed that the largest numbers
of Budgerigars in these cities ranged
from 0 to 11, with breeding not
documented anywhere in the re-

gion (Pranty 2001). Stevenson and


Anderson (1994) repeated much of
the misinformation published by
Wenner and Hirth (1984); additionally, they used very liberal criteria to
determine establishment of Budgerigar populations.
Numbers of Budgerigars in the
Tampa Bay region peaked at perhaps
20,000 or more individuals during
the late 1970s. The range, which was
chiefly coastal, extended about 100
miles from Hudson through Venice.
Following the period of rapid population increase and range expansion
during the 1960s and 1970s, Budgerigars in Florida began a decline
in the early 1980s. Totals on Christmas Bird Counts in the Tampa Bay
region declined from nearly 7,000

Birding august 2015

Budgerigars during the 19771978


season to fewer than 400 individuals
ten years later (Pranty 2001). By the
late 1990s, this population crash had
caused the extirpation of Budgerigars
from four of the six counties in their
former established range. The species
was last found at Bradenton in 1991,
Tampa in 1992, Sarasota in 1993, and
St. Petersburg in 1997. The two final
remnant flocks, at Bayonet Point/
Hudson (later, just Hudson) and Hernando Beach, were within 10 miles of
each other and represented the two
northernmost populations. Although

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numbering fewer than 100 individuals each by the mid-1990s, these


two flocks survived for 20 additional
years. The final individuals from the
Hudson and Hernando Beach populations died out within days of each
other in April 2014 (Pranty 2015).

everal causes of the population


decline have been proposed, including abnormally cold temperatures and disease, but I believe that
competition over nesting sites from
European Starlings and especially
House Sparrows was the most im-

In Florida, Budgerigars were human commensalsthey relied on


humans for their direct support.
Although Budgerigars could feed on
grass and other seeds, commercial
bird seed probably provided the vast
majority of their food. With House
Sparrows, Hernando Beach, Hernando
County, Florida; December 2009.
Photo by Bill Pranty.

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D I S A P P E A R A N C E O F TH E B U DG ERI G A R

Following the removal of all their nest


boxes, in 2012, the Budgerigars in Hernando Beach dwindled rapidly. Most
remaining individuals, such as the two
here, were adult males (note the blue
ceres), and this skewed sex ratio may
have contributed to the extirpation of
the final Budgerigars. Hernando Beach,
Hernando County, Florida; January
2013. Photo by Jeffrey A. Gordon.

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portant cause of the decline (Pranty


2001, 2015). Many homeowners
whose yards contained Budgerigar nest boxes reported that House
Sparrows were direct nest competitors. This behavior was confirmed
by a Masters study in the New Port
Richey area in 1978, where in many
instances House Sparrows entered
Budgerigar nest boxes, punctured
and removed the eggs, and then
took over the box for their own
nesting activity (Shapiro 1979).
Extirpation of local Budgerigar flocks due to House Sparrows usurping nest boxes continued through at least 1999 (Pranty
2001). A reduction in the number
of Budgerigars from an area resulted
in fewer nest boxes being provided
in subsequent years, which caused

the local population to decline further (Pranty 2015).


With Budgerigars now extirpated
from Floridaand the ABA Area
votes later this year by the Florida
Ornithological Society Records
Committee and the ABA Checklist
Committee to delist the species are
anticipated. Until 2014, removing
an extirpated exotic from the ABA
Checklist meant that birders could
no longer count the species on lists
submitted to ABA (see Pranty et
al. 2008:183). However, in 2014,
the ABA Recording Standards and
Ethics Committee voted to allow
listers to continue to count exotics
that have been extirpated from the
ABA Area and removed from the
ABA Checklist by the ABA Checklist
Committee.

Birding august 2015

Although some Budgerigars nested in boat davits, broken streetlights,


and natural cavities in snags, most used specially built nest boxes that
were placed in suburban yards by the thousands. The entrance of these
boxes precluded most other species, but House Sparrows could easily
enter. House Sparrows usurped many Budgerigar nest boxes, often after
puncturing the parakeet eggs and evicting the adults. The author believes that competition with House Sparrows over nesting sites was the
primary cause of the Budgerigars decline and eventual extirpation in
Florida. By the mid-2000s, all of the Budgerigars breeding at Hernando
Beach were believed to be restricted to a single suburban yard that
contained perhaps 40 nest boxes in close proximity. This property
changed ownership in 2012 and all the boxes were removed, causing
the Budgerigar to rapidly decline to extirpation. Hernando Beach,
Hernando County, Florida; April 2007. Photo by Bill Pranty.
An adult male Budgerigar has just fed his soon-to-fledge daughter.
Distinguishing between the sexes of Budgerigars is easily accomplished by examining cere colorazure in males and pink or orangey
in females. Aging Budgerigars is based on head pattern: Adults have
unbarred yellow foreheads and white irides, whereas young birds have
heavily barred foreheads and dark irides. Hernando Beach, Hernando
County, Florida; June 2009. Photo by Bill Pranty.

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D I S A P P E A R A N C E O F TH E B U DG ERI G A R

Literature Cited
Cooke, M. T. and P. Knappen. 1940. Some birds naturalized
in North America. Transactions of the Fifth North American
Wildlife Conference, pp. 176183.
Lipp, F. 1963. Parakeet citya tourist attraction. Florida Naturalist 36(1-B): 1.
Pranty, B. 2001. The Budgerigar in Florida: Rise and fall of an
exotic psittacid. North American Birds 55: 389397.
Pranty, B. 2015. Extirpation of the Budgerigar (Melopsittacus
undulatus) from Florida. Florida Field Naturalist 43: in press.
Pranty, B., J. L. Dunn, S. C. Heinl, A. W. Kratter, P. E. Lehman, M.
W. Lockwood, B. Mactavish, and K. J. Zimmer. 2008. ABA
Checklist: Birds of the Continental United States and Canada,
seventh edition. American Birding Association, Colorado
Springs.
Shapiro, A. E. 1979. Status, habitat utilization, and breeding
biology of the feral Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus)
in Florida. Masters thesis, University of Florida, Gainesville.
Shapiro, A. 1981. Melopsittacus undu- WHAT? [sic]. Florida
Wildlife 34(6): 2830.
Stevenson, H. M. and B. H. Anderson. 1994. The Birdlife of
Florida. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Wenner, A. S. and D. H. Hirth. 1984. Status of the feral Budgerigar in Florida. Journal of Field Ornithology 55: 214219.

This adult male, one of three Budgerigars remaining at Hudson, was


found dead less than a month later, and the other two individuals
were never again seen. This image furnished the final photograph
of Budgerigars in Pasco County, where a single roost 36 years earlier
contained at least 6,000 individuals. Hudson, Pasco County, Florida;
March 2014. Photo by Dorian Anderson.

Budgerigars are abundant in captivity


and are easily obtained; two birds, their cage,
and a months supply of seed can be purchased
for $25 locally. Thus, Budgerigars escape or are
released frequently. Such birds, which are often
white, blue, or yellow avicultural morphs, rarely
survive for more than a few days; they should not
be associated with the formerly established population along Floridas central Gulf coast. With Great
Egret, Honeymoon Island State Park, Pinellas County,
Florida; September 2014. Photo by Tim Kalbach.

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Birding august 2015