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Owner of Arlington’s Wild Birds Unlimited looks to fly the coop, ending 32-year career

The owner of Arlington’s Wild Birds Unlimited is seeking to retire after 32 years in the birding business —  right after he finds a successor.

Michael Zuiker wants to make it clear: the long-standing storefront in the Lee Harrison Shopping Center in Yorktown isn’t going anywhere. But after more than three decades, Zuiker is looking for someone new to fill his role of chatting with customers, keeping up with change and encouraging busy Arlingtonians to take time to enjoy the natural world.

“I have loved owning this store and getting the chance to meet all of you while sharing my love of the birds,” the business owner said in an emailed announcement last week. “But we all reach new phases in our lives and I want to get the wheels turning to start my retirement years.”

Zuiker is ready to wait as long as it takes to find a new owner. He is confident he can find someone who understands the joy of connecting customers with nature by selling birdseed, bird feeders and other outdoor equipment.

“It’s a lot more than just making a dollar selling birdseed. It really is,” he told ARLnow. “It’s having the customers come back and say, ‘Look at what I got in my backyard! I’ve never had that bird before.’”

Zuiker is asking potential buyers to contact him at [email protected].

Adapting to change

Due in part to Arlington’s shifting demographics, Zuiker still regularly finds people discovering his business for the first time, though they view birding differently than avian enthusiasts 32 years ago.

“My first customers, they were in their little $80,000 house that was paid for,” Zuiker recalled. “They had their little retirement disposable income. Now, people are moving into these $1.8 million homes with two kids, two cars and four dogs and a cat. It’s kind of a lot of expenses.”

Today’s birders are younger and busier, often fitting birdwatching into crowded schedules.

“You’ve got to kind of slow people down to just stop for a second,” Zuiker said.

Different faces are just one of many changes the store has adjusted to over the years.

When Zuiker assumed ownership of the county’s Wild Birds Unlimited in 1991, his employees made $3.25 per hour. Most birdhouses were made of wood, and staff wrote down orders using a pen and paper.

These days, the wage is at least $15 per hour, employees record orders digitally and much birding equipment is made of recycled plastics.

“If you’re not willing to be flexible and constantly change, and rethink your store and redesign your store, and make it attractive to customers… people do lose interest from time to time,” Zuiker said.

For the birdseed salesman, part of the job’s allure is the personal responsibility he feels for his business’s success or failure.

“There’s only one person I can look at who’s been there 32 years, and that’s me,” he said.

Eager for the future

Despite Zuiker’s ongoing love for his feathered friends, he is ready to move on from the job of running a business.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “I really am, because there’s so much I want to see and want to do.”

The birder has no shortage of ideas. He wants to go to music festivals. He wants to learn the accordion. He wants to visit Europe, tour national parks and write a book.

More than anything, Zuiker said, “I want to see new stuff. I want to find new lakes; I want to find new birds.”

Zuiker doesn’t intend to rush anything. He still has high standards for what the new owner will be like — someone as passionate about birds and business as he is.

“We won’t sell it to anybody, and the franchise won’t let me, unless it’s a very good person dedicated to backyard bird feeding,” he said. “That’s the key.”

Zuiker declined to speculate on how long that will take, but after 32 years, he says it is time to spread his wings and leave the proverbial nest.

“I’ve done it for so long,” he said. “I think it’s really time to say, ‘You did it. You did it really well.'”

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