Feeding our feathered friends

Features - BIRDING

IGCs share birding sales trends and product recommendations for their region.

October 9, 2020

Photo © Sharon Day | ADOBE STOCK

More than 40% of Americans make it a regular habit to feed birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Is your IGC serving these potential customers?

Edward’s Garden Center, in Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, has had a birding department for about five years and this was the best year so far, according to manager Debi Jaskowiec.

“Everything was up this summer,” she says. “We sold a lot more hummingbird feeders this year — not so many birdhouses. We were selling more than we had in the past year or two. But the hummingbird feeders were just flying out the door. We couldn’t keep them in stock.”

In its birding department, Edward’s Garden Center sells wooden and metal birdhouses, butterfly feeders and bumblebee feeders, along with the hummingbird feeders. Jaskowiec says the bumblebee feeders were another big seller.

Jon Morris, owner of Grasshoppers Garden Center in New Boston, New Hampshire, says his region’s bear population makes birding a difficult proposition for many of his customers.

“Birding is big around here, but more going out into the woods and going hiking to look at the birds,” he says with a laugh. “I wish we didn’t have the bear problem here because I do think it would be a good part of our business if it wasn’t for that.”

People in his region of New Hampshire take their feeders down in the spring and put them back up in the fall when the bears begin to hibernate. No one wants to attract hungry bears to their backyard, and the bears do much more damage than squirrels or other creatures that are known for tampering with feeders.

Hummingbird feeders are still popular at Grasshoppers because they can stay on the deck all summer. But once those backyard birders are looking to put their standard feeders back up, the garden center is closed.

“A lot of people do it in the wintertime,” Morris says. “But they don’t necessarily think about coming to the garden center in the wintertime. Our customer flow is April through Thanksgiving, then the winter is super quiet for us.”

That may change this year, because for the first time, Grasshoppers will be open five days a week through the winter. The IGC started carrying local food like produce, meats and cheeses last year, and that business exploded during the pandemic. Customers have been coming in droves and it shows no sign of slowing down, so Morris plans to stay open all winter, and pull the birding products back out to display in the gift shop. He’s optimistic that it will reach his area’s birding customers and grow that segment of his business.

Herbein’s Garden Center in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, expanded its birding center this year. Sales associate Gidge McFarland says it was the result of an opportunity she saw in the market. Some other stores in the IGC’s region that stocked bird supplies closed and their customers needed a new place to buy bird seed. Herbein’s also used its expansion as a chance to switch up its product mix.

“We had other products in the space that weren’t selling; they were just standing still,” she says.

However, birdbaths were a big seller for her this year.

Holly Dentico-Onkala is birding merchandise manager at English Gardens in Dearborn, Michigan (No. 13 on Garden Center’s 2019 Top 100 List). That means she’s the buyer in charge of deciding which birding products to stock and how to promote them.

“We have found that our customers who are passionate about bird feeding like having new toys to play with, so we try to give them the essentials as well as fun finds you won’t see in big box stores,” she says.

Still, English Gardens won’t stock decorative feeders or houses that aren’t functional as well.

English Gardens carries a variety of options from the basic essentials to fun finds customers won’t see in the big-box stores. They take special care to make sure everything they stock is functional rather than just decorative.

Educational efforts

Along with the expansion, Herbein’s Garden Center added a section to its website devoted to birding (herbeins.com/birding) that includes a rundown of product offerings and some information for consumers. The educational material available includes several ways to increase traffic to your birdfeeder and a list of native plants for a bird and butterfly garden, grouped by type and organized by sun/shade tolerance. Sales associates use this information as a selling point for the plants on the list.

“If someone has a question, we try to answer it as best we can,” McFarland says.

Herbein’s also carries a book from the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society, “Birds of the Lehigh Valley,” that customers really seem to like.

“It’s got really beautiful color photographs,” she says. “So if you want to pick up birding in your backyard, you can come here and we’ll set you up.”

Education is mixed with fun on Edward’s Garden Center’s social media feeds. During one of their “Tuesday Tips” Facebook posts, Jaskowiec says an employee showed how to make a small birdfeeder out of an apple.

“We did it because of the pandemic and the kids were home for the summer,” she says. “She made an X with the wooden skewers you use for kebobs, tied it with brown twine, carved out the apple and put peanut butter and bird food in it, then you hang it in a tree. It was really nice.”

English Gardens features their feed and feeders in emails, the in-store flyer and seminars. They also have some videos featuring plants, feed and feeders, and the IGC’s blog hosts posts on topics like “5 products to get kids interested in birding.”

Flying foodies

Different types of foods attract different birds. For instance, Nyjer seed is the preferred food of finches. It’s oily and dense, which means it will dry out if left too long.

Another thing to look for when picking a food is quality ingredients. Herbein sells mixes from Lyric Wild Bird Food, Cole’s and their own basic blend. Higher-end mixes are packed with ingredients like shelled nuts, pistachios and dried fruit. With bargain brands, the customer is often paying for filler birds won’t eat.

Also, different types of food require different styles of feeders.

“I try to stock items in different price points so I can make it affordable for people who don’t want to spend the money,” McFarland says. “I also try to educate them that some of the more expensive feeders have a lifetime warranty so you can get parts or get it fixed or replaced by the manufacturer.”

IGCs should make sure the feeders and food they stock match up, and also are a good match with the birds of that region. If you need help, the National Audubon Society (Audubon.org) is the definitive resource. Between its website, books and app, the venerable non-profit provides all of the resources you’ll need.

Edward’s Garden Center doesn’t sell 50-pound bags of seed. The Pennsylvania IGC sticks to the smaller, 4- to 5-pound bags from Better Bird. The fruit and nut and sunflower seed mixes are popular, as well as Nyjer for the goldfinch fans.

Edward’s also sells suet bells, which Jaskowiec says are going over very well. They are ceramic bells that hang from a cord, with suet in a netting that hangs from them.

Grasshoppers Garden Center takes a pragmatic approach to bird food.

“We’ve had customers ask for specific bird foods, so we carry what they’re going to buy,” Morris says.