By Jerome Tharaud
CHESTER - On the wide country just below the Marias River, 25 miles south of Chester, sits a simple wooden building. Often in the early morning, wild birds flock across the tawny fields to its windows and perch there, drawn by some impulse to see what's inside. The little sparrows and their ilk stare inside at magnificent exotic creatures that share some distant relation to themselves. One imagines the stir that would arise if the revered specimens of the human race - an Achilles, a Beethoven, a George Washington - suddenly appeared together at the local diner. Here on the plains, these birds sit to gawk at parrots from faraway lands, possessed of brilliant colors, intelligence and even the ability to speak. If anything could draw a spark of aspiration from the starling and the sparrow, it would surely be these shining lights of the bird world.
The unlikely Hi-Line combination of parrots, cockatiels, love birds, parakeets and finches - about 30 birds altogether, and one brown guinea pig named Miller - are fed and bred by Regina Kalafat, 18, who pursues this passion - part pet, part business - by commuting each week from the University of Great Falls where she is a freshman this year. Kalafat introduces visitors to her menagerie with evident pride.
The bird house comes to life as expectant squawks greet anyone approaching it across the lawn. Once inside, the place is an explosion of whistles and random words. The birds seem to be celebrating something, perhaps the attention or food they know will follow.
Among about 15 cages there are eight parrots - including African greys, with their gray bodies, white masks and reddish tail feathers; the more colorful macaws and mini macaws; 13 cockatiels, accented with pert crests and blushing cheeks; two lovebirds - which have little interest in the visitors, being absorbed in their necking; four parakeets in various shades of aquamarine; and four colorful finches, which Kalafat compares to little Mercedes-Benzes.
"When everyone else is quiet, you can always depend on the finches to give their little beep beeps," she said.
Reigning over the whole group is a large blue and gold macaw more than a foot tall named Sparky, who in addition to being able to pronounce his own name, utters words like "cool," "huh," and "superbird." Often the macaw - gender unknown - addresses the guinea pig housed in front of the bird cage. The guinea pig makes noises at the macaw, Kalafat said, but the conversation is a little mismatched. Grown parrots can live up to 60 years and some are estimated to have the IQ of a 3-year-old human.
Not that the bird minds to condescend to the level of a cavy. "Birds tend to get a little bored just in front of other birds," she said. "I think they have more fun watching him."
Kalafat began her collection with a parakeet when she was a little girl. When one of her brothers lost interest, Kalafat cared for it. Then seven years ago, Kalafat bought her first cockatiel, a male named K-B.
Her brother Samuel had a rare disease, protein-losing enteropathy, and spent many hours in bed training the bird. About a year later her brother died at age 19. The cockatiel stayed, and a year later was joined by a second.
Then three years ago, Kalafat bought a female to complement the two males, and taught herself to breed the birds. She read books and Web sites about bird care, and talked to other breeders in the state.
Breeding is a delicate process. First the strangers are put in a cage together.
"They don't really like each other at first," Kalafat said. It can take a couple months before the cellmates start to come around. "They eventually start preening each other and cuddling with each other and sitting side by side."
Kalafat can tell the birds are ready when they begin preening each other, although the birds' prudishness can require some spying to find out.
"They only do that (preen) when it's really quiet and no one's looking," she said. As soon as she catches them preening, Kalafat attaches a wooden nesting box - which looks like a birdhouse, complete with perch and circular hole - to the side of the cage. The birds take time to warm up to this change, too. They start sitting on the post and peering inside the hole. Then they start eating at the wood around the hole. When the hole is worn to their satisfaction, they enter and make a nest out of the pine sawdust placed inside. One to four weeks later, the female lays eggs and they take turns sitting on them for three weeks.
Kalafat opens the lid of one of the boxes to reveal a puffed-up, hissing male African grey, livid at this intrusion. She nudges him aside to reveal three neat, oblong white eggs. The contents of those eggs will eventually sell for almost $1,000 apiece, but not before a great deal of time and money is put into them.
Kalafat sells African greys for about $975, macaws for $1,000 to $1,200, cinnamon pearl cockatiels for $45, cockatiels and lovebirds for $40, parakeets for $17, and finches for $5. There is no shortage of buyers, even in rural Montana. Kalafat said she has a waiting list. She sells to private buyers - mostly in Great Falls - who see her ads in the newspaper.
It may sound lucrative, but bird raising done properly is not the way to get rich, she said. One couple of birds should only be allowed to breed about three times a year. Otherwise the parents' health suffers. She said some breeders cut corners by breeding them more often or not investing in the proper food.
Kalafat's larger birds - parrots and cockatiels - are tamed by repeated hand-feeding from the time they are about 2 weeks old until they are weaned at 5 months. The demands of raising a baby parrot properly - they must be hand-fed a special liquid formula every two hours - means that most of these birds spend some of their youth in Great Falls, being carried in boxes from place to place or in the home of Kalafat's younger sister Elizabeth. One exception, an African grey named Moguls, was taken along on a trip to Bridger Bowl when he was a few days old, and Kalafat came off the hill every two hours to feed him.
Once weaned, the birds enjoy a gourmet medley of fresh fruits, breads and seeds. Nestled in their heated home, they receive regular baths - although they only consent to get wet when a CD of rain forest sounds plays - and also get a daily dose of AM radio, which Kalafat says they love. The more active the music, the more active they get.
The birds are treated like young lords and often act the part.
"They can be pretty bossy sometimes," said Elizabeth Kalafat, 20, who helps her sister take care of the birds. "They think they rule their own little world." The parrots learn to pick out the foods they don't like, like bananas.
"These are my two banana eaters," Kalafat said, referring to Sparky and an African grey named Benji. "Everybody else throws them on the floor. I think they're too slimy for them."
By the time they are grown, many are quite at home perched on shoulders and nibbling at earrings, hiding in hair, or playing peekaboo.
"They cuddle with you and sleep on your shoulder and it's great," she said. "I love it. It's like they need you, I guess."
That tameness is what separates these birds from many others, Kalafat said.
"It's hard to find an African grey that's really tame," she said.
Talking is another matter.
"That's the thing about birds," Kalafat said as her sister tried to coax some words out of Topaz, a mini macaw decked out in a dazzling array of red, orange and green feathers. The bird remained stubbornly mute.
The key, the sisters said, is repetition.
"You do it lots of times - like lots of times," Elizabeth said, "and he'll start trying and start using basic words."
Sometimes it's not so difficult though.
"Sometimes you don't even try to teach them to speak and they pick it up," she said.
Words aren't all they can reproduce. Benji can imitate a car horn, while Moguls can imitate a cell phone ring.
One sound, at least, is no imitation. Kalafat knocks on a nesting box to rouse its inhabitants. An unmistakable metallic growling begins, bristling with a father parrot's anger, deep inside the box. Meanwhile the mother parrot sticks her head out of the box's round hole to investigate. Kalafat peeks inside the side door. After repeated calls and knocking - and a little bribery with a piece of bread - the parents are momentarily distracted, and she swings open the door, where a small, drab thing like a miniature, downy chicken - a 2-week-old African grey - gazes dazedly into the light.
After a moment Kalafat shuts the door and the indignant parents descend into their nest again. She will begin hand-feeding the baby bird this week.
Some day, Kalafat said, maybe she'll try to raise birds for a living.
"It would be nice to do nothing but come out here and take care of them," she said. "That would be fun."
The colorful scene of so much affection and care is a fitting outcome of a passion that in some sense began as a result of a lost brother.
"He liked them so much, and I think he would like to know I was raising them," she said. "I think he would help me."