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    THE APPEARANCE OF a canary-yellow budgie in an aviary in Belgium in the early 1870s was a light bulb moment in the development of the modern bird. Despite the hundreds of thousands of birds being imported into and bred on the Continent, this was the first recorded colour mutation of the species in captivity and it eventually helped change the breeding of budgies from happy accident to algebraic art.
    A handful of years earlier a myopic monk who had twice failed to obtain his teaching diploma delivered a lecture at the Natural History Society of Brünn (now Brno) in the Czech Republic. His topic was the cross-breeding of peas in the St Thomas’s Abbey garden.
    After eight years of experimentation, growing and recording the development of 10,000 hybrid pea plants, Gregor Mendel had developed his Laws of Heredity and laid the foundation of modern genetics.
    Mendel sent copies of his paper Versuche über Pflanzenhybride (Experiments on Plant Hybrids) to leading members of the scientific community and learned societies around Europe, where it was dutifully filed but not fathomed. Darwin was still everyone’s darling and it took another 75-odd years before his Theory of Evolution was fully reconciled with Mendel’s ideas as a coherent calculation in Evolution: The Modern Synthesis by Julian Huxley.
    In 1900 Mendel’s work was ‘rediscovered’ after three botanists, each working independently, duplicated the results of his pea experiments with evening primrose, cereal crops and hawkweed. But the budgie breeders were already well ahead of them—in practice if not theory—as they carefully selected birds in attempts to develop the yellow variety. In 1880 an aristocratic collector presented two yellow budgerigars at an exhibition in Berlin, establishing that colour breeding was also underway in Germany.
    Nonetheless, when an Australian bird exporter named Gard captured two wild yellow birds in the bush, they were still sufficiently rare to be exhibited in the South Australian Court of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition—a huge 1886 showcase of ‘every portion of Her Majesty’s Empire’ held in Kensington, London, that attracted over 5.5 million visitors.

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