Whether they’re seen with the naked eye, through binoculars or heard with listening devices, birds are common in wildlife observation. For decades, observers have gathered in open fields, national parks and special destinations to witness fluttering wings and exotic colors. Garden centers offer customers the same opportunities in their backyards.
For more than 130 years, Russell’s Garden Center has been a botanical resource to the residents of Wayland, Massachusetts. Senior Buyer Suzanne Thatcher has been a part of the team for 30 of those years, and while the perennials department is her main focus, she has also run the bird shop for the past 28 years and has recognized purchase and demographic trends along the way.
“Coming from the perennial side of the business, as lots of our serious perennials customers age, they find that they still want to be connected with nature and outdoors and their yards,” Thatcher says. “I think a lot of them are focusing on the wild bird area for that reason. And then, on the other hand, there’s a lot of young families, first-time homeowners, younger couples moving to the area, and as they’re moving from areas where there’s not much space around, they want to connect their children and family with a yard. I think [birdwatching] is one way of doing it.”
Because Russell’s is open year-round, the bird shop receives business throughout the year. Thatcher says purchase trends are contingent upon the season. The “nasty and cold” winter encourages people to supply heavy duty feeds, and when migratory birds reappear in spring, there’s a huge emphasis on hummingbird and oriole seeding. In the heat of summer, people set up bird baths and around Christmas, shoppers buy bird houses and feeders as gifts. A few years ago, they introduced pollinator boxes, butterfly coddlers, bee boxes and bat boxes.
But these items aren’t the only common purchases. Squirrel deterrents rank high as well. “People always ask me, ‘What can I do to stop the squirrels?’” Thatcher says.
What is slowly becoming the new normal however, are water accessories. “I think people are beginning to realize the importance of water, especially throughout winter,” Thatcher says. “It hasn’t been a bad winter this year, but some winters — when it’s cold and the natural water resources are frozen for a long period of time — I think people want to have heated bird baths or deicers in their existing bird baths.”
Although Russell’s has always carried them, Thatcher says that for the past two years, shoppers have inquired about water wigglers and drippers — things that add motion to water. “People are getting a little more interested or at least aware of not having stagnant water in their bird baths. Some people also use solar bubblers or solar-powered drippers that move water because it draws in more birds, and also helps keep the water fresh, which stops mosquitoes from laying,” she says.
While the garden center isn’t currently looking to make modifications, Thatcher says they built a “critter resistant birdseed saleroom” about five or six years ago. Since the store isn’t completely “critter-proof,” birds, squirrels and nature’s bandits — raccoons — invade at night.
At Native Nurseries in Tallahassee, Florida, Joe Walthall, co-owner, bird store buyer and son of the original founders, says they are always redesigning the shop.
“The shop drives a lot of repeat customers, people who come in for 5 to 10 pounds of birdseed each week,” he says.
When buying, Walthall typically orders off inventory and occasionally buys items he’s seen at trade shows in Atlanta and Chicago.
While Native Nurseries offers a wide range of products, much like Russell’s, Walthall says purchases fluctuate depending on weather and bird appearance.
“The last time we had a heavy goldfinch or pine siskin year was probably five years ago. We just don’t see that many of them here anymore, so people don’t really buy Niger [seed] in the winter, which used to be a big seller here. Depending on the seasonality, [bird shop purchases] definitely change, but I’d say
it’s consistently 15-20% of our sales,” he says. Walthall says they also sell field guides and backyard feeder guides, which are popular with older customers. And because the palm trees produce a lot of fruit in Tallahassee, Walthall shares how native plants interact with wildlife and encourages customers to garden for birds too. A lot of their customers have planted plants like Elliot’s blueberry, yaupon holly and max myrtles.
As far as bird interest, Walthall says the experienced birders feed “everybody in their backyard stations.” However, some customers come in and say, “red bird” or “blue bird” and he has to determine if they’re referring to a cardinal, blue jay or actual blue bird.
To emphasize bird care and other gardening education, Native Nurseries holds classes and workshops almost every weekend. They focus on vegetable gardening, birding, bird gardening and more. Russell’s holds workshops as well but focuses on the birding aspect with owl presentations and bird photo contests.
In the future, Walthall wants to become more sustainable in its birdseed options in order to cater to the concerns of a younger demographic.
“Tallahassee is a pretty small town in North Florida, pretty progressive, and a lot of people here are looking for ways to reduce their environmental impact … I think you see that the younger people are more concerned about [packaging] and buying plastic bags all the time.”
As for the future of birding itself, Walthall is hopeful and thinks the hobby will remain strong.
“I think, as long as we’re able to protect our environment from global warming … and as people my age get more secure in homes and jobs, I think that they’ll probably get into it. You can definitely tell that the older crowd is gaining a lot of enjoyment out of the birds and I don’t think that really changes. So as we get a little bit older, people are going to be doing more and more bird feeding and birdwatching. It seems to be something that’s pretty consistent.”