MILLTOWN - A couple of years ago, back when Billy Izzard and his wife, Charlene, lived in Plains, Billy wanted to help his grandchildren earn a little extra pocket change for the Sanders County Fair.
He doesn't really know what prompted him, but Izzard decided he would make birdhouses out of scrap wood, the children would paint them and together they would sell them.
That was the plan, and they all stuck to it.
Using whatever could be scrounged up on his property, Izzard transformed yard junk into tiny houses and handed over the designing and painting to grandson JT and granddaughter Mya, who were ages 7 and 6 at the time.
"I've always loved child art," Billy explained of his whim. "It's so innovative. They see the world differently than we do."
The end result was a series of charming and quirky birdhouses Charlene's friends wanted to buy. The fun of that summer made the couple keenly aware they wanted to live closer to the Missoula area, where their grandchildren live.
So they found a new home in Milltown, and as fate would have it, the house they purchased came with a birdhouse in the backyard.
It looked lonely, and so Billy, JT and Mya began talking birdhouses again.
Charlene brought home several books on birds, and Billy got to pondering how to build beyond-the-basic nesting boxes n and more involved, architecturally challenging bird palaces.
He and his grandkids dreamed and schemed, painted and nailed, and when each project was finished, Billy raised their handiwork high in the air and secured it atop the high wooden fence that rings the Izzards' home.
No longer a money-making venture, the houses evolved from utilitarian into eye-catching works of art.
Dozens of houses are there now, from the whimsical to the sublime, from simple to ornate.
There's a giant dollhouse turned into a nine-unit apartment complex for a martin family and a Noah's Ark-inspired two-story structure, complete with plastic animal figures. There's a miniature town, with a church and a bar and a country mercantile with a business sign that reads "bird store."
Now 10 and 9 respectively, JT and Mya are expert birdhouse makers and painters, and the entire family has learned a thing or two about birds.
They don't like bright colors and seem to prefer rusty red, hunter green, and mustard yellow, Mya said.
They don't like perches, and the size of the entry is critically important.
Because martins are such good mosquito eaters, many of the birdhouses have been built for them.
"When we first moved here there was a giant tree taking up the yard, no sunlight could reach the ground and we had lots of mosquitoes n you couldn't be in the yard without getting eaten," Billy explained. "When I learned martins eat like a 1,000 mosquitoes a day, I decided to focus on the martins."
Word spread among the bird community that the Izzard yard had been cleared and was the place to be. There was room for everyone.
Martin families moved in and paid their rent by knocking back the mosquito swarm.
"That second summer we were here, I got bit just two times and last year n just once," Billy said.
As he and Charlene transformed the onceneglected yard into bird paradise n by planting alluring flowers, raspberry bushes and a vegetable garden n more life appeared.
This season, the martins have been joined by indigo buntings, western bluebirds, evening grosbeaks, goldfinches, house wrens and doves. And this season, two new designers have been brought into the creative fold, granddaughters, Bella, 3, and Makaia, 1.
For Billy, a mason by trade, bringing birds into his life has given way to other subtle, yet powerful benefits n the experience has allowed him to spend quality time with his grandchildren and pass along his building skills and problem solving know-how.
In a world full of technological distractions, Billy explained, "you want to tell the grandkids something, you want to give them honest information."
They in turn, keep him inspired - and busy.
JT looks forward to what they'll create next.
"I really enjoy building stuff and painting is one of my favorite things," he said. "I like seeing which design we will come up with."
Like sister Mya, JT said it would be impossible to choose his favorite birdhouse among the dozens they have built.
"All of them are pretty much my favorite," he said.
The most magical nesting box is a treehouse,
which is framed like a real house with windows and a front door, and is decorated with a kitchen table that has seating for three and a bed n all of which is tucked into the canopy of a Chinese elm, some 20 feet off the ground.
To get to it, Billy built a wooden staircase that winds around the tree's trunk. It's for the grandkids, Billy said with a mischievous smile. "I got in trouble for building it so high off the ground."
The complaints didn't come from the youngest members of the family, it came from Charlene who worries her little birds might tumble out.
This summer, when he finds some extra quiet time, Billy said he'll put the final touches on the treehouse. It will get a metal roof n and in a nod to the smaller homes they've built, he'll paint a giant black circle on it and add a little perch.
Then, he said, "it will be the best birdhouse of all."