Moving to Freedom, .Org

For the Birds

baltimore oriole, public domain photo by david brezinksi, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Not only is Lanesboro the Bed and Breakfast capital of Minnesota, it’s also the official Rhubarb Capital. We stayed at a B&B and we bought Rhubarb Wine from the Scenic Valley Winery, but this isn’t a post about either of those things. (Although I should mention the wine was restful, and “The Inn at Sacred Clay Farm” had a delightful piquant bouquet.)

After breakfast one morning, the innkeepers were telling us about things to do in the area and mentioned Avian Acres, just outside of town. Maybe it came up in a conversation about the bird feeders they had around the house.

We got the impression they had a lot of bird houses out there, which is something my wife has been interested in doing more with. She’s dabbled in bird feeding also, but past experience has caused me to be leery of the ongoing expense, hassle, and mess of this activity. (Not to mention the HUGE burden of responsibility for feeding these creatures in the winter after they become dependent on you.)

But I thought it might be fun to visit. A bird house seemed safe enough, and something I’d be interested in as well. Innkeeper Sandy described a friendly owner and a nice place at the end of a narrow gravel road. It sounded like a relaxing, scenic follow-up to our morning bike ride, and buying a bird house would be a suitable vacation endeavor.

This isn’t Avian Acres; it’s just a nice looking farm we saw on the way there:

A barn and a barnyard on a farm.

Here is the Avian Acres store front. This is part of a large wraparound porch added on to a barn:

Avian Acres Wild Bird Supply store front

We got there around lunchtime. A man called out from a nearby house that he’d be with us in a few minutes, so we walked into the store.

It looked like he mostly had bird feeding stuff, with only a few bird houses. Mildly disappointing. It was nice inside the store, having a cozy “country store” feel, and you could see out large windows to bird feeders and the pleasantly green surroundings, but I felt like we wouldn’t be there long. I often get antsy in shopping situations and want to leave sooner than later.

Avian Acres Wild Bird Supply

We were soon joined by Bob Thomas, the owner of the place. Bob is a low-key, likable guy — someone you immediately feel at ease around. We asked about the bird houses and he showed us a few, and spoke knowledgeably about the kinds of bird each would attract.

And then — somehow — the conversation turned more to bird feeders and bird feeding. Through the windows, we watched a steady procession of birds visiting his feeders, including a Pileated Woodpecker. This prompted interesting discussion about the kinds of birds and what they ate.

Bird Feeders at Avian Acres

It felt so casual and peaceful. I didn’t feel the pull of the next activity or meal like I usually do when on vacation. This was turning out to be a fun activity. We also saw an oriole. I don’t think I’d ever seen one in person before that. Brilliant orange color — what a pretty bird!

We asked about squirrels and what can be done about them. He said, “I feed the squirrels.” I loved the way he conceded the issue. There isn’t much to be done; if you can’t beat ’em, feed ’em. He said that by putting an open tray on a nearby tree with a mix that squirrels prefer, they rarely bothered his bird feeders.

I liked the way he asked, “How many squirrels do you have?” I had never thought of them as being discrete in number. They’re squirrels. They’re all over the place. But Bob explained that they’re territorial, so we might only be dealing with a few of them. With the way he talked about them, they became players in the drama of wild bird feeding. Not good or evil, but simply a part of nature to accommodate.

Avian Acres Front Porch

I asked about the cost of the squirrel mix and how fast they go through it. I’m cost conscious this way — I tend to estimate and annualize expenses to decide how well a potential hobby fits in our budget. He said it could vary of course, but by one estimate, the squirrel feeding came out to $5 a week. GACK, I thought. $250 per year just to feed squirrels?! But we decided that a feeder placement closer to our house along with our dogs might help dissuade the squirrels.

Somehow we were talking about practical concerns like placement.

It seems so inevitable now. I have a hard time remembering my initial resistance. It’s not that I was dead set against a bird feeder. With Kathy’s interest in birds, I knew it was something we might start doing sooner or later, but it’s funny how seamless was the transition from later to sooner, to “right now.”

Bob asked us what we currently had at our house. When Kathy said, “Nothing,” I almost felt apologetic. How could we not have bird feeders? I was already starting to feel like I should be sharing his interest in this pastime.

Bob smiled and said, “You’re making this easy for me.”

And with that, I think I knew we’d be getting a bird feeder. He wasn’t the least bit pushy, but his quiet passion for birding, along with the sanctuary he’s created out there… it was an extremely compelling non-sales pitch. It just seemed natural that we’d want to start down this road. I love being around people who love what they do and are passionate and knowledgeable about their interests.

He described the merits of different types of feeders, and suggested a “fly through” feeder as a good starter feeder. This is a simple tray, with or without a roof, and a good mix will attract a variety of birds. Being open, it allows the birds to pick out seeds they prefer (and thus reduces the mess from birds flinging aside the seeds they don’t like). The sides of the tray help to keep things from falling all over.

After determining a good height for mounting it and picking out a pole and ground anchor, there was the question of which fly-through feeder to get. Bob presented a couple of options before leading us out to the porch to show us some feeders he had made himself. This soon became an appealing idea. They looked good, and I liked the personal touch of a handcrafted item.

Here’s the one we ended up buying:

Fly-through Bird Feeder

He explained that it might look big up close, but that it wouldn’t seem that way when it was in the yard. To give you a sense of scale, I’d say there’s enough room to park a Mini Cooper in there. Or at least to hold four loaves of bread. It took up half of our back seat, and became a participant in our vacation. I asked from time to time, “How are you doing back there, Bird Feeder?”

Notice there is a bit of an overhang to the roof? Bob attributed this to his German background. “The house needs to be protected.” He also gave the example of the porch we were standing on — he added it on to the barn to create a proper shelter. (We didn’t even realize the store was a converted old barn up to that point.) He pointed over to his house, which to my eyes had normal-sized eaves, and said, “Those are Norwegian eaves over there,” which made this Norwegian laugh.

Fly-through Bird Feeder, Installed

For seed, we went with a thirty pound bag of his most popular variety: “Bobs’ Mix.” Somewhere along the line, my resistance to the ongoing expense melted away. It helped to consider how much we already spend on our pets, otherwise known as “the ticking time bombs.” My budget math became fuzzier. I vaguely expect we’ll spend between $200 and $500 per year on seed. (I’ll be sure to let you know.)

And we bought a small wren birdhouse.

And there we were, fully outfitted, having spent nearly two hours at Avian Acres. It felt more like visiting a friend’s home in the country than a stop at some random store. We enjoyed Bob’s place and his company so much that it’s almost certain we’ll continue buying from him, and I’m looking forward to returning on our next trip to Lanesboro.

You can see here the feeder in its new home. We put it up yesterday after creating a wood-chipped area to collect falling seeds. You can tell we’re serious about this because it takes inspiration and ambition to deal with sod removal. (I was previously motivated enough to put three coats of clear stain on the cedar wood, wanting to “protect the house.”)

I wonder what the birds think when one of these things pops up. Oh, yeah. Dude. Bonus!

It would be nice if you could negotiate with them. “Okay, listen up, birds. We’re going to give you free food. In return, can you please not poop on us and our things?” To which their answer is, “We’ll take the free food, but sorry, we won’t be bound by gravity or bodily restraint.”

But they’ll sing pretty songs for their food, right?

Except, so far we’re mostly seeing grackles, whose song Wikipedia describes as “particularly harsh.” I was entertained by the description there:

This bird’s song is particularly harsh, especially when these birds, in a flock, are calling. Songs vary, from year round “Chewink Chewink,” to a more complex breeding season, “Ooo whew, whew, whew, whew, whew” call that gets faster and faster and ends with a loud, “Crewhewwhew!”

(It becomes funnier to me on each reading.)

At least we can admire their “resourceful and opportunistic nature.” And when I hear their name, I often think of Lisa’s voice from an old Simpson’s episode, “We saw a grackle,” which makes me smile, the way she says it.

We’ve also seen a female Red-winged Blackbird foraging on the ground, and a Brown Thrasher, and some sparrows.

No squirrels yet.

It’s pretty cool.