Breeders classify their birds according to colour and variety, rather than breed. The colour describes the general plumage of the budgie, and the variety refers to the pattern and/or colour of its markings (see Budgie Varieties, below).
The colours that distinguish the two broad groupings of budgie are green/yellow and blue/white. The underlying hue of most budgie types can be identified by the colour of the mask (the area of the face between crown and throat).
The two basic colour types are green and blue
The ancestral wild budgerigar is a lemon-and-lime mixture of greens and yellows, and this combination is very common amongst pet birds. The blue/white type is very popular too, in varying degrees of darkness from grey to cobalt.
Different Budgie Types
From the original wild budgerigar, there are now more than thirty recognised basic colour combinations amongst pet budgies. The birds sporting these colours are not one-offs, but have plumage that has been fixed by gene mutation.
Mutation isn’t limited to captive-bred birds – it occurs in the wild just as readily, and is the creative hub of evolution. In the wild a colour mutation is unlikely to bestow an advantage that will enable the new hue of budgie to breed more successfully than its green brothers and sisters. This means it will soon die out, as the weird-coloured budgie is likely to be bypassed by conservative female birds in favour of the traditional green and yellow livery.
In captivity, however, breeders can isolate budgies with novel coloration and breed them with similar birds to create a flock of that particular type. From there, the whim and perseverance of the budgie keeper can mix and match almost endlessly; and within the thirty-odd basic budgie colour schemes, there are dozens of variations.
There are many colour variations in pet budgies, all based on a basic palette of yellow and blue pigments. Blue and yellow equals green, and this is the dominant colour in wild budgerigars. In many pet varieties, the yellow pigment is absent, and the blue shows through against a white (rather than yellow) base. Add some black into the mix, and you’ve covered all the ground.
One thing you never find in budgies is red pigmentation. Any pink tinge will be due to a colorant in the bird’s food rather than a tendency in its genes. But this gap in the palette has not prevented a dazzling assortment of colour variations, from smoky greys to azure blues, and pastel greens to mustard yellows. There are also some albino specimens in the mix, as with any animal species, lacking in the usual pigmentation.
Budgies come in many colour varieties
The dark pigment – the one that turns the yellows green and splashes blue across the white – is a form of melanin called eumelanin. The yellow pigment is psittacofulvin, mercifully shortened to psittacin.
Budgerigar Colour Varieties
The colour palette can be enriched by the presence of genes that influence the shade or intensity of colour, or that alter some of the birds’ markings.
One of these genes darkens the colour of budgies’ plumage, the extent of the darkening depending on the number of genes present in the bird (i.e. two, one or zero). This Dark factor gene is absent in the wild budgerigar, whose colouring is referred to as Light Green. With one dark factor gene present, the budgie becomes a Dark Green type; with two, it is Olive. The equivalent shades in blue/white budgies are Skyblue, Cobalt and Mauve. These last three can be complicated by genetic features known as Yellow Face or Gold face. Birds with these genes sport yellow faces on otherwise blue/white bodies (see Yellowface Budgies section, below).
Different genes determine different colour types
The colour scheme can be churned up in other pleasing ways, too. The Grey factor gene brings a grey wash to budgie feathers, making green birds green-grey, and turning blue birds a lovely smoky shade. Violet factor deepens and darkens the colours in both green/yellow and blue/white birds, sometimes producing an electric purple effect. Slate factor, a very uncommon gene, lends a blue-grey slate darkness to the plumage.
Budgie Colour Expectations
The colour of a budgie chick depends on its parents. Dominant genes, such as the one responsible for the yellow/green colouring found in wild budgerigars, will always dictate plumage colour if passed on. Pet budgies, however, come in such diverse colour patterns that it’s often hard to predict exactly what the offspring will look like.
For example, a bird may be carrying a non-dominant (recessive) gene for blue/white feathers, ‘hidden’ behind the dominant one for yellow/green feathers. The blue won’t show up in the bird itself, but the gene may get passed on to the next generation, where, if it pairs with another recessive gene, the blue coloration will show.
Colour variety is part of the appeal in a flock of budgies
All non-Light green type birds (i.e. ones that don’t have the same plumage as wild budgies) are the result of gene mutation. The commonest variant, the blue/white budgie, has simply lost its yellow pigmentation. These two basic base colour schemes – yellow/green and blue/white – are complicated by the presence of various mutant genes. Markings or body colours may become lighter or darker, and some features (such as chin spots or black feather borders) may disappear altogether.
Birds can carry either one or two of the same ‘mutant’ gene, and where two are present, the effect of that particular gene (colour or markings, for example) will be enhanced further. In a lot of birds, two different mutant genes combine to produce beautiful effects – varieties such as the Yellowface and Dominant Pied, for example, mentioned in the Budgie Markings section below.
The secret of a budgie’s colour, then, lies in its parents’ genes. Breeders know that when they put two Light greens together, there is a 99.9% chance (barring random gene mutations) that the offspring will be Light greens. Likewise, a Light green and Skyblue cross will also produce a Light green, as that is the dominant gene. The next generation, however, inheriting two colour-coding genes each, shuffles the genetic pack a bit more. Some of those recessive Skyblue genes will have been passed on, and wherever two combine in an individual bird, that will be the colour its plumage assumes.
Budgie breeders often choose parent birds carefully in an effort to produce the perfect bird. Others enjoy the potluck of pairing different types of budgie, looking for unique variations on a theme. Most are perfectly happy with raising healthy chicks, regardless of coloration or markings.
Very occasionally, a new mutation will produce something never seen before, such as the Blackface budgies that appeared and disappeared in the 1990s (see rare Budgie Types, below).
Contrasting colours in two young budgies
Budgie Colour Change
If a budgie’s plumage changes colour after it has reached adulthood, it is usually a sign of deficiency in the diet. An all-seed diet, for example, can be low in vitamin A, which makes the budgie’s feathers appear less bright. Make sure your birds are eating well, and the problem should solve itself.
Another cause may be lack of cleanliness. If a budgie doesn’t regularly preen – i.e. clean its feathers – it will look faded, dusty and generally messy. Provide your pet with water for personal hygiene – via wet salad leaves and herbs, or a budgie bath – and he will happily bathe and preen himself. The preening involves a careful beak-manicure of individual feathers, using an oil gland on the budgie’s rump to give a healthy, waterproof, oily sheen.
If your budgie is being bullied, plagued by parasites, or is ill for any other reason, his colours may look duller or dirtier than usual. Prevention and cure are the answer (see the section below on Budgie Health).
The only budgie type that actually changes colour over the months as it moults is the Opaline, mentioned in the Pied Budgies section below.