When his 9-month-old cinnamon green budgerigar won the All American competition last September against 767 other Australian parakeets from around the country, Ronald Rebhan knew he'd finally made it to the top.
"Winning the All American was one of the best thrills of my life," the Finksburg bird breeder said. "It's like winning the Super Bowl. It takes a lot of luck and you've got to have the right bird.
"And people really look up to you when you win that."
With this top award, Mr. Rebhan can consider himself a true master breeder of this bird. The budgerigar, or budgie for short, is a larger relative of the American parakeet.
"The bird is native to Australia, but we call them parakeets and the English call them budgies," Mr. Rebhan, 48, explained. "The English have built up the . . . parakeet to its larger size -- it's a 9 1/2 -inch bird now -- and they have been improving the species."
Like thoroughbred horses, there are pedigreed budgies. Mr. Rebhan, an electrician by trade, raises registered purebred budgies as a hobby.
He has 150 to 200 birds at a time in a heated and air-conditioned 12-foot by 26-foot building behind his house. The birdhouse is divided into two large rooms with perches that give the birds space to fly and a smaller area with 15 nesting boxes for breeding.
The birds are brilliantly colored in shades of green, blue, yellow and gray. While a novice walking into this aviary will only see a lot of birds of different colors, Mr. Rebhan sees each one individually.
"They don't look alike to me," he said. "If one's missing, I'll tell you he's missing. If there's something wrong with one, I can tell right away."
The original budgie is green and other colors are mutations, Mr. Rebhan said. The mutated colors are caused by the bird's genes, and a breeder knows which bird is carrying which color gene when he breeds the birds.
HTC But color isn't all that counts when breeding budgies. Feather texture -- blending a smooth feather with a rougher one -- is what gives the birds their size, along with lots of fresh air and a diet of seed, hard-boiled egg and protein-rich vegetables.
Mr. Rebhan breeds his birds twice a year, carefully picking the birds to mate. The breeding pair is put in a specially designed nesting box where the female lays and incubates four to six eggs.
When the babies hatch, the mother feeds them for the first three weeks, then the father takes over mealtimes.
When the birds are 5 days old, Mr. Rebhan bands them with his code number.
One unique factor in breeding budgies is that the birds need the noise from other budgies to stimulate them into mating, he said.
"That's why I have so many," he said. "The idea is to come up with a different bird every year to show. I run about three different families of birds -- mostly green. They're the dominant ones and the largest birds and that's what I like."
He breeds about 20 pairs of birds each year to get 100 babies; about 95 percent survive.
To improve his families, he borrows budgies from other breeders and lends his birds to them. One example is a beautiful cobalt blue budgie that Mr. Rebhan is using, borrowed from the man who started it all.
"Don Langell is a top breeder from Massachusetts who introduced the English budgie to America 40 years ago," Mr. Rebhan said. "He was the judge who picked my bird at the All American, and he said, 'It takes a master breeder to breed a bird of that quality.' "
It took Mr. Rebhan 13 years to develop his winning bird. It was younger than most birds and had never been shown before.
"They're usually 1 to 1 1/2 years old before they win a big show like that," he said.
Preparation for a show starts three to four weeks before. The bird is sprayed with lukewarm water several times every day to condition its feathers; a couple of days before the show, it is shampooed and groomed.
The main drawback to having "show" budgies is that the stress of traveling, grooming and showing cuts the bird's life in half, compared with that of a house pet parakeet, which can live nine or 10 years.
Shows are two-day events on weekends, and the show season generally runs from April to November. Many states have budgie societies with their own shows, averaging 300 birds in a show. The All American is the biggest show of the season, normally held during the Labor Day weekend.
The Maryland Budgie Society's 1994 show will be June 11 at the Comfort Inn in Pikesville.
The All American is sponsored by the American Budgie Society, which has 4,000 members. Mr. Rebhan is a founding member and past president of the 20-plus member Maryland Budgie Society, which is associated with the national organization.
State clubs and the national society each have their own magazine with information about birds, shows and breeders. Mr. Rebhan also subscribes to Budgie World magazine from Great Britain.
Mr. Rebhan and his wife, Kathie, travel all over the country to about a dozen shows a year.
His honors, including best of show and exhibitor of the year for winning the most shows, have qualified him to be a judge, along with a judge's exam.
The awards and title of master breeder also help bring in big bucks for the birds. Purebreds can bring $500 to $1,500 apiece, he said.
"You have to be a big winner to sell them for that much," Mr. Rebhan said. "I don't buy any more birds. When you get a reputation in the hobby you can trade your birds, and I'm well-known in the hobby."