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After 26 Years, Store Owner Still Passionate About Connecting Neighbors with Nature

Every Thursday morning, rain or shine, the folks enjoying breakfast and coffee at the tables outside the Lee Harrison Shopping Center Starbucks get to see the delivery of two to three tons of birdseed hauled into the Wild Birds Unlimited store next door.

That’s two to three TONS of bags of wild birdseed.

“That’s how fresh it is,” says owner Michael Zuiker. “And we go through that mountain every week.”

During special promotions that mountain has been known to grow to seven tons, and it flies off the shelves as if on eagle wings.

Wild Birds Unlimited has been at the same perch at Lee Harrison for 26 years, ever since Zuiker gave up designing Roy Rogers restaurants for Marriott in the 1980s and decided to do something that connected him as well as others with the outdoors.

“I’ve always loved outdoors, always loved nature,” Zuiker says. “I always loved the concept of doing something all natural. So for 26 years we’ve been bringing people and nature together.”

Over the years Zuiker has established a loyal clientele of bird lovers in Arlington, Falls Church and McLean, and he’s heartened by the growing number of new customers who come to the store perhaps for the first time. But some of them aren’t clear on the concept when they first come in.

“Maybe twice a week people come in looking to buy birds,” he says. “I tell them, I have no clue how to sell a bird. And the other misconception they have is when they ask, Can you make a living doing this? That’s when I politely tell them feeding wild birds is the second-most popular hobby in America, next to gardening.”

Zuiker says some 60 million Americans actively feed birds all four seasons. “It’s a beautiful hobby,” he says.

Zuiker is careful not to run down the competition, but those inexpensive bags of birdseed at grocery and hardware stores are not the stock he’s carrying.

“They sell it so cheaply, I don’t see how they can make a profit on it,” he says. “But it won’t be fresh, it won’t be good quality seed. A 20-pound bag might have 70 percent cereal grain in it which the birds don’t actually eat. They’ll kick it to the ground.

“And it’s very possible it’s been sitting on the shelf for months, which, because there is larvae in it, it could produce bugs.

“Or it could have very few seeds that only a few species will eat and not the kind people are trying to attract to their backyards.”

In Arlington, that would be cardinals, chickadees, titmice, winter wrens, English sparrows, goldfinches, blue jays, doves — “a lot of color, a lot of songs in your backyard,” he says–or any of the six species of woodpeckers that inhabit the area.

A different bag of bird food, when used strategically, will bring in the migrating birds. Zuiker says there are some 10 to 20 species of those who swoop in for a snack before headed home.

Zuiker and his staff make sure customers have the seed and the feeders they need to accomplish their goals, and in Arlington and Falls Church, which are famously leafy neighborhoods, it’s not hard to do. But it has to be done right.

“You can put a feeder out and have birds on it within an hour,” he says. “But we tell our customers to give it a couple of weeks to really get going because the birds don’t recognize it as a food source right off the bat.”

Then there’s the squirrel challenge. “Everybody has a squirrel challenge,” he says, “but we can make any feeder in our store 100 percent squirrel-proof if you set it up correctly.”

Unsure about squirrels, feeders, seeds and the difference between a tufted titmouse and a white-breasted nuthatch? Just ask.

“I train my staff really hard to be real educators,” says Zuiker. “We want people to walk out the door with their solution for what they want in their backyards, and we try to educate them on the different ways they can do that. And it’s fun!”

Still fun, after 26 years?

“I never get tired of listening to the birds, I never get tired of feeding the birds and I never get tired of going out into the woods and exploring,” Zuiker says.

“But what really motivates me is, I don’t think I’ve maxed out [the customer base]. I don’t think it’s reached its potential. And I’m not interested in growing just to grow, but to help the staff and help other people–I’m still motivated by that.”

And not to mention helping the wild birds.

Wild Birds Unlimited is in the Lee Harrison Shopping Center at 2437 N. Harrison Street, Arlington. Call 703-241-3988 or email at [email protected].

The preceding business profile was written by Buzz McClain for our sponsor, Wild Birds Unlimited.

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