FEATURE: High fliers in hobby that is strictly for the birds
You hear it the moment you step outside the back door. Faint at first, a slow crescendo walking down the path, then as the door of the bird room opens it hits you full blast.
The sound is an ear-splitting shock if you have only ever heard one or two budgerigars chirruping in a cage in the corner.
Here there are 400 – give or take a few because world-class breeders, exhibitors and judges Ghalib and Janice Al-Nasser have understandably lost count.
It is the tail end of the breeding season and for a time new arrivals, which enter the world blind, bald and less than an inch long, were hatching daily.
“We’re so used to the noise now we don’t notice it,” says Janice, above the din.
Exhibition budgies come in a dazzling array of colours and markings from pure white through yellow, blue, turquoise, green and grey.
Opalines, cinnamons, spangles, pieds, and crests are among the varieties flitting back and forth in the giant cages, sidling along the perches, and adding their voices to the clamour.
Most are much bigger than their less-exalted cousins, which are so familiar as pets.
Occasionally a squabble breaks out between the youngsters – often over a toy. “Be nice,” Janice tells them.
The Al-Nassers are probably as close as it gets to budgerigar royalty, with an impeccable pedigree stretching back to the 1970s.
Their expertise is in demand at shows all over the world.
Ghalib has judged in over 30 countries including Australia, Germany, Israel, Norway, Bahrain, Brazil, Pakistan, and the USA. Janice’s tally is not far behind.
Host clubs entertain them lavishly. They have to pay their own air fares, but point out that other hobbies could cost them just as much.
Budgies brought them together. They were both long-term devotees when they met in the 1980s through the British Budgerigar Society.
Both also take major roles in the management side of the “fancy” as it is known – especially Ghalib who is secretary and treasurer of the World Budgerigar Association.
They have held – and still hold – dozens of different posts in local, national and international groups.
And both have the Budgerigar Society’s highest honour, the Silver Bird.
“Up to last year I’d had 27 positions in 13 societies,” says Ghalib, who retired from work aged 50 and has “never looked back”.
“It’s not a hobby now for me, it’s a way of life.
Their haul of awards is impressive too. They have won more than 800 challenge certificates and bred 65 champion birds.
Evenstar’s Pride and Joy – who qualified as a grand champion after winning three best in show titles – died a few years ago.
But his framed photograph and grand champion award have pride of place on the wall of the preparation room where they get birds ready for competitions.
Amazingly, Ghalib and Janice can tell all the budgies apart. “There’s always some characteristic we can identify,” she says.
“But obviously we can’t name them all. They only get names when they are registered as a champion. Even then thinking what to call them can be hard.”
“As to what what makes a good exhibition budgie, we basically look for three things – size, shape and deportment.”
On the table are 19 rosettes – each a good four times the size of the bird that won it - from the previous day’s specialist and rare variety show.
Making sure the likes of Smokey Joe, Silver Pearl and Summer Sky are spruced up and ready for the judges takes careful preparation.
“We catch our show team and put them in the stock cages after we finish breeding,” says Ghalib.
“Two weeks before a show we start spraying them with lukewarm water three times a week to get their feathers tight and in good condition.
“We also start trimming the black spots below the beak.
“The day before the show, if we see one has a dirty head, we bathe it with baby shampoo.”
Ghalib, whose career included time as a research scientist for British Gas, was born in Iraq and came to England aged 16 to study.
He first kept budgies in his teens, and has been exhibiting them since the early 1970s.
Retired teacher Janice had budgies as a child, but with Gerald Durrell as her childhood hero she also looked after more unusual pets like snakes and spiders.
She began breeding and showing birds in the 1970s, and was determined to make her mark in what was a very male-dominated activity.
Janice and Ghalib, married for 22 years, live near Sudbury with labrador Fern and a cat, Kizzi, who they say is good about keeping her paws off the hundreds of small potential dinners.
When they moved from Kent eight years ago it took a very big van to shift all the birds in one fell swoop.
“Moving 90 miles with 400 budgies was not good,” says Janice, “but there’s no way we could have trusted them to a removal firm, We even had a chick hatch en route.”
Feeding and checking the birds takes up to two hours twice a day. “I do the morning shift and Ghalib, who’s not a morning person, does the evening one,” says Janice.
The budgies thrive on top quality canary seed and mixed millet, munching their way through a 20 kilo bag of seed every four days.
Their diet is supplemented with Janice’s special recipe soft food made from hard-boiled eggs, vegetables and vitamins, plus manuka honey.
So do feathers ever fly when the couple have to make decisions about their birds?
“Of course we sometimes disagree as we both are strong headed individual people, but the final say rests with the person who gives the best argument or explanation,” says Ghalib, before quipping: “Usually me!”