Monday, October 23, 2006

Budgie show displays the best of genetic engineering

You can hear the birds from out on the street long before you pull into Bill Mitton's driveway.

Theirs is a riotous sound ­­ disorderly, unruly and unrestrained.

At the same time it is a sound that reminds one of life itself ­­ of a time in our distant past when we were not the dominant force in our environment. It is a primordial screech.

As you pull up the drive you begin to realize that the screech you hear is coming from a detached cinder block building just across the driveway from Mitton's house.

And unless you have any idea what Mitton's passion is, you would not know that the screech is the joyous sound of 100 budgerigars ­­ a colorful tropical bird, indigenous to Australia and New Zealand.

The budgies, as they are commonly known, bear little resemblance to their distant relatives. According to Mitton, they have become "English parakeets."

Except perhaps for their cacophonous screech.

In the wild they are green in color. But a peek inside of Mitton's cinder block aviary would leave one wondering just how this formerly tropical green bird evolved into an "English parakeet" that now sports no less that 23 color variations.I

t is actually a lesson in genetics. And in a sense, an act of love.

Mitton is a member of the Budgerigar Association of America, one of several worldwide organizations that breed, show and, in a word, appreciate budgies.

Today, Saturday, and Sunday, Mitton and his fellow members of the club will hold their Grand National Budgerigar Show in the gymnasium at the Camp Verde Community Center.

Having the event in Camp Verde is no small accomplishment. The last three years it has been in Atlanta, Dallas and Las Vegas.

It's a big deal for the town and a testimony to Mitton and his partner Darvin Jenner's stature in the community of budgie aficionados.

Mitton has been raising budgies since he was a kid. He got out of it for a brief period in his life, but eventually returned after helping his daughter raise some budgies as pets.

Over time he has become one of the nation's top breeders with several birds placing in the national championships.

"The truth is, I love the competition," Mitton said. "That's what motivates me.

"No surprise, considering Mitton spent over 30 years as a high school football coach in Phoenix until retiring to Camp Verde this last year.

The secret to his success, at least with the birds, is a simple matter of knowing what will happen when birds of a feather get together.

"The whole process of breeding good birds is a lesson in genetics. You learn which genes are dominant, which ones are recessive, and how to calculate the odds," Mitton said.

The results of those calculations are what you see in Mitton's aviary. Shades of blue, yellow, green and brown abound in his gender specific cages ­­ as do variations in eye color, body size and temperament.

"There is a computer program on the market to help you keep track of the breeding process and help predict the outcome. But the bottom line is, you have to know your birds," Mitton said.

His ability to recognized each of his 100 or so birds and relate each one's lineage is testimony to that knowledge.

On Saturday, from around 9:30 a.m. to about 4 p.m. all of their colors, including lutino, harlequin, spangle, pied and lace wing, will be on display as some 400 budgies and about 100 breeders compete to see which bird is the National Grand Champion.

It will be an extravaganza of both sight and sound, in which you will be treated to their joyous screech, the one truly original characteristic that connects them to their antipodean ancestors and their distant cousins.

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