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FANCY FEATHERS AND THEIR FANS

Exotic birds are judged, admired and purchased at an annual show.

The Coliseum was a cat's idea of heaven over the weekend. But felines weren't allowed inside - the Coliseum was for the birds.

All kinds of birds. Orange birds. Coral birds. Multihued birds with feathers of yellow, blue, black and lavender. So many birds that the constant tweets, chirps and occasional earsplitting squawk during the Suncoast Avian Society Exotic Bird Fair could drown out human conversation.

The birds themselves were not the only draw. Their accoutrements - cages, heated perches, harnesses and leashes - stuffed the center of the building. A T-shirt on sale proclaimed "I do what my bird tells me." A speaker gave suggestions on teaching birds to do tricks.

Many of the serious bird people clustered on the west side of the building, leaning anxiously forward in chairs as judges evaluated their feathered friends to award trophies and ribbons to the best birds.

Although the concept is similar to that of a dog show, the routine is a bit different. After all, dogs can't flutter away to the rafters.

So the birds stay in small cages while a judge peers closely at them. Sometimes the judge picks up a cage to get a closer gander at the occupant. Then, the judge begins shifting the cages, arranging the birds in order of finish.

Judge Marion Sparzak of Baltimore objected to one small bird because its tail was up. Ideally, the tail should be down and look graceful. But the owner should not despair, she said. The bird was young and was nervous. When he relaxed as he got more show experience, the tail issue would likely be resolved, she said.

The winner of the class was a white bird that had "been 'on' all day. Very nice bird. The bird's still showing. I like the confirmation."

Sparzak has raised birds for 30 years. She's been a judge for 20.

Judgeships are hard-won in the competitive bird world. The applicant must pass a "grueling knowledge test" lasting four or five hours, then apprentice with three judges. Then the governing body of the bird world grants certification if the applicant's knowledge of specific species, birds in general and procedure are adequate.

Sparzak is certified to judge finches and parrots, which include birds ranging from the 4-inch-long parrotlet to the 3-foot-long macaw.

When looking for the best bird in the class, Sparzak looks at conditioning (feather quality and length of toenails) and deportment, among other things.

"Some species of birds are bolder," she said. "I expect them to be bolder." The bird's color, she said, should radiate from the inside out.

Preparing a bird for show can be summed up in one word: diet.

"Diet is everything," Sparzak said. "These birds don't eat seed. They eat everything we eat. ... They'll eat chili, pizza, you name it. What you eat, you can feed your parrot. ... My birds get a lot of scrambled eggs."

Sparzak said people who are new to birds need to understand that they are flock animals. So, when you bring a bird home, you've become part of a flock.

The life span must also be taken into account. Some parrots can live 70 to 80 years.

Of course, there's the petting issue. Birds do not pet each other. They scratch. Humans should take note.

"You pet fur and scratch feathers," she said.

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