Ellicott City store that's meant for those who appreciate birds

For 10 years, Cathy and Tom Franklin have sold items and offered advice

May 03, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Joan Walter said she "got hooked" on birds about seven years ago, when she saw her first bluebird shortly after moving from Annapolis to western Howard County. Her property is dotted with birdhouses, and now several of the houses are filled with nests of bluebirds, swallows and chickadees.

But she is worried that snakes, cats and other wildlife will "get a free lunch," she said, so she stopped by the Wildlife Authority in Ellicott City on Monday to find a solution.

The store, owned by Cathy and Tom Franklin, has been selling all things bird-related for 10 years, first from about a half-mile west on U.S. 40 and for the past three years at the current location.

Perhaps more important than the items for sale is the expert advice dispensed free. "A lot of people come in for advice," Cathy Franklin said. "They come in for our expertise if they have a problem."

Tom Franklin, a wildlife biologist who works for the Izaak Walton League of America, a conservation organization based in Gaithersburg, was the one who fostered his wife's interest in birds.

"He's been a birder all his life, so I kind of got into it when I met him," she said. "I grew up in Baltimore, so I knew a blue jay and a cardinal, and that was about it."

When the couple opened the store, Cathy would work weekdays and Tom would come in on weekends. Now, the Franklins have four employees.

One is Diane Nagengast, who started as a customer and has been working at the Wildlife Authority about six years.

"I've been feeding birds since I was little," she said.

Nagengast, who has many bird feeders and birdbaths on her property, also keeps domestic birds. Her experience with birds allowed her to give Walter advice that no customer would be able to find by reading the back of a product package.

She suggested a shield-shaped squirrel guard that would fit on the base of the birdhouses, but also told Walter to fill the hole that attaches the guard with steel wool, so snakes can't slither through.

Cathy Franklin also recommended a $5.99 tube of a gel-like product called Tanglefoot, which can be rubbed on the pole to keep away snakes and ants. In another bit of free advice, she told Walter that she could wash the sticky substance off her hands with vegetable oil.

Customers are alerted to the bird theme before they walk in. A sign outside says "Wild Bird Crossing," and a sculpture of a goose stands guard at the front door.

Inside, a soundtrack plays the sound of birds chirping, and clocks on the wall mark the hours with birds instead of numbers. Several of the bird fountains are running, adding the burble of water to the outdoorsy sound.

Cathy Franklin said birding is the No. 2 hobby in the nation, after gardening. She defines a birder as anybody who watches or feeds birds. One of the nice things about birding is that a person can start small, with almost zero initial investment, she said.

One of the least expensive items in the store is a $4 mesh sack that can be filled with birdseed. The most expensive bird feeders can be several hundred dollars.

Cathy Franklin said it is a myth is that feeding birds will prevent them from flying south in the winter. Feeding doesn't harm birds, but it really doesn't benefit them, either, she said. The feed is a lure that allows people to see the incredible variety of winged creatures that are so close.

"There's always the possibility you'll see something new," she said. This time of year birds are returning to Maryland, mating and nesting. The singing, she said, is typically from males, who are trying to attract females while warning other males to keep away.

Franklin said it is possible to see a male bird take a seed and feed it to a female as part of the mating ritual that takes place each year as the weather gets warmer.

Nagengast said that just that morning she had been scooping food into a feeder when a hummingbird came over. Hummingbirds don't eat bird seed, they eat insects, but this one was attracted by her red scoop.

"You can wear a red hat or red shirt, and they'll come check you out," Cathy Franklin said.

Birdbaths also attract birds that might not otherwise wander over for a visit. This is especially true during a drought, she said.

The store sells bird-theme jewelry, T-shirts, bookends and artwork, as well as bird feed, books about birding, binoculars and software that teaches about different kinds of birds.

Thayer Birding Software is set up near the counter, so customers can hear the sounds of their favorite birds, see pictures and a map showing where the bird might be found.

The Wildlife Authority is at 10281 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City. Information: 410-465-5007.

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