Birds like birdseed. Squirrels like birdseed. Squirrels like it so much, in fact, that they often climb up birdfeeders to feast, thus irritating their human hosts who provide the birdseed for the pleasures of watching the birds. Some people get angry. Some purchase birdfeeders designed to electrocute the squirrels.
"Some people don’t mind feeding them," said Mike Fritts, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, a new retail store in Chantilly's Sully Plaza Shopping Center. "Some people hate squirrels. You never know what someone is going to say."
Wild Birds Unlimited opened on April 22 of this year to serve Northern Virginia’s share of the 52.2 million Americans who birdfeed. As a hobby, birdfeeding is second only to gardening, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
"If you talk to people, probably half of them wouldn’t say they’re hobbyists", said Kellee Fritts, co-owner of Wild Bird Unlimited, and Mike’s wife. According to her though, more than half would say they have a birdfeeder. "That’s all it takes. You don’t have to be Mr. Nature and know every bird on sight. All you have to have is a feeder, and birdseed, and like watching the birds come to your yard."
"A lot of people have found us and are saying how excited they are to have something in this end of the county," said Kellee Fritts. She explained that though bird hobbyists would visit other stores in Reston, Burke, and Oakton, they couldn’t go as often as they wanted because of the long drives. "They’re excited because it’s right next store."
Dena Gallagher, a Gaithersburg, Md., resident who works in Springfield, often stops into Wild Birds Unlimited on her way home from work to pick up specially-formulated birdseed for the Northern Virginia area. Gallagher explained that when birds feed on generic birdseed, they kick out the seeds they don’t like, and end up creating a huge mess below the feeders. Gallagher now enjoys watching blue jays, cardinals, and finches without having to clean up after them. Squirrels did eat through two of Gallagher’s feeders, however.
Squirrels have become such a detriment to bird watching that several companies now offer squirrel-proof birdfeeders. Kellee Fritts prefers feeders that keep squirrels away using humane methods, and described one type of model that uses a built-in motor to flip squirrels off of the apparatus. She does not stock her store with any squirrel-shocking birdfeeders.
A YEAR AGO, Mike and Kellee Fritts had by anyone’s standards a terrific, stable life. Mike was working as a computer programmer, something he’d been doing for 10 years. Kellee worked as a HR benefits coordinator. They had a daughter, Jordan, now 6, and a house in Chantilly.
"In my own thoughts, I was good at what I did," said Mike Fritts. "But it didn’t provide me with a lot of fulfillment."
Mike Fritts has been a bird hobbyist all his life. His mother was a feeder, and from a young age, Mike enjoyed watching the birds from his windows. "I picked up an interest in them, it stuck with me for a while," he said.
Kellee, his wife of 15 years, was not originally a hobbyist. "I’ve always sort of been a watchful observer of his hobby. I didn’t really pay that much attention to it. It’s always been in the background of our lives."
Last May, Mike Fritts decided he was going to be serious about changing careers. He devoted an entire summer, full-time, to figuring out what he wanted to do. Knowing his love of birdfeeding, Mike began to explore businesses related to his hobby, and came across the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise. At the end of August, he and his wife went to Indianapolis to learn more about the business.
THE FRITTSES struggled with the decision to abandon their careers. During the summer, Mike told himself that if he didn’t do it now, he never would — he and Kellee had their daughter’s future to think of. After agonizing over the decision, the Frittses decided to move forward and open a store.
In doing so, said Kellee Fritts, they gave up the security of corporations: the benefits, the retirement, and the structure. "You have to guarantee everything because you have no track record," she said. Their assets, including their house, are now on the line.
On top of the financial risks has been the adjustment to family life. "We are really just pouring everything we have, literally and figuratively, into trying to keep it open all these hours," said Kellee Fritts. "Trying to have family life has been a struggle." Mike works seven days a week. Their daughter comes into work with them on Saturdays.
So why do they do it? "It’s great," said Mike. "One of the reasons I’m glad I did it is to share my hobby with other people." All day long, Mike says he gets to talk about something he truly enjoys, and gets to see that enjoyment in other people as they learn more about the hobby. Some of the stories you hear, you can’t beat it, he says.
Wild Birds Unlimited is located at 13950 Lee Jackson Memorial Highway in Chantilly. The store can be reached by telephone at 703-961-0198.