July 2020

5 Drinks with Sean and Julia Dennis, Wild Birds Unlimited

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.KAT Photography

I’m drinking: Frozen margarita
He’s drinking: Southern Barrel Damn Yankee IPA
She’s drinking: Adult lemonade with gin

Over the course of quarantine, we all discovered some new hobby or skill. Some people took to sprucing up their landscaping. Some binged every serial killer documentary on Netflix. But for many, the biggest entertainment of the spring was right in their own back yard.

With bird watching’s popularity soaring (pun totally intended), it seemed like a good time to sit down with Sean and Julia Dennis of Wild Birds Unlimited. We met up at Agave in Old Town Bluffton for a few drinks and some feathery conversation.

BK: With everyone stuck inside the last few months, it’s been crazy to see the number of people on social media suddenly getting really into birding. Is it having a moment?
Julia Dennis: I would say yeah, definitely. More people are spending time at home and having more time to look at birds, so they’re buying houses and feeders. It’s been really busy.
Sean Dennis: I hope it’s more than a moment, but birding is definitely having a moment in terms of attention and news articles about birding. All you have to do is search the news tab on Google and all these articles come up about birding.

One reason is people are cooped up inside. Another one is with the different viewpoints of social media and its impact on our lives, some people want some kind of escape from it—something more natural. Birding is certainly that.
JD: It’s a really relaxing thing to do.
SD: It’s a stress reliever. Sure, hardcore birders can get themselves worked into a tizzy looking for bird number 700, but for the average person it’s relaxing.

BK: Were you guys birders when you took over Wild Birds Unlimited three years ago?
JD: We didn’t start out as serious birders. We’ve always been animal lovers, and some of our friends got us into birding. We were very new at it when we got into this, but it seemed like a great way to meet other people who loved animals and nature.

BK: I mean, you guys knew that roseate spoonbill like that. (Some context: prior to the interview, C2 publisher Maggie Washo offhandedly mentioned a pink bird she’d seen on Marshland Road, and the couple identified it in unison almost instantly.)
JD: It’s kind of a life bird for me at this point.
SD: It’s one of the more exotic things that show up here, the occasional wayward traveler.

BK: What other wayward travelers have you spotted?
JD: We’ve had customers who saw a Bullock’s oriole on some suet. It’s not supposed to be here. It’s a West Coast bird.
SD: The most exotic we’ve had at the house are black-bellied whistling ducks. They’re normally in Florida or further south, but we’ve had populations living here. We had a male and female show up in our yard and just peck around and then fly up.

BK: Is this kind of a hotspot for birds?
SD: I would say yes. And I think it’s growing. The Audubon Society here is very active and ranks in the top five nationally in terms of participation. Sun City has a very active birder community, not only watching but advocating for environmental issues that affect birds.

BK: What sort of things should I be putting out to attract birds?
JD: Eastern bluebirds, everyone wants those. They love mealworms. And bark butter bits are very popular because they can grab and go and take it back to the nest. They have a lot of calcium, which is important for nesting birds because mothers have to leech calcium from their own bones to make the nest. They’ll also come to feeders if there are sunflower chips, which is the seed out of the shell.

BK: They won’t eat them unshelled?
SD: It’s actually kind of interesting; chickadees and titmice will grab a sunflower seed between their feet and peck it open. They’re insect-eating birds, because their beak comes to a little terminal point. So somehow that group of insect-eating birds has discovered the secret of opening those seeds; then you have other insect-eating birds that either haven’t figured it out or don’t want to.

BK: Birds are smarter than people give them credit for.
JD: Crows in particular are very smart.
SD: They’ve even found tool use in little nuthatches. We have ruby throated hummingbirds that can fly from Central or South America all the way to Hilton Head. And yet we have politicians who think they’re in the Appalachians and they’re actually in Argentina.

BK: Shots fired!
SD: That came to me in the shower the other day; I had to use it.

BK: What’s on your list of birds you need to see around here?
JD: The highest thing on my life list is a Harpy Eagle, but you’re not going to see one of those unless you’re in Panama or Costa Rica. They’re these giant raptors, and they look bizarrely human. They’re amazing.
SD: I think it’s worth finding a photo on your phone to show him. They’re enormous, terrifying raptors…
JD: They eat sloths
SD: Yes, they eat sloths.
BK: They eat … sloths?
Both: Yes
BK: Oh my God!

(Julia then proceeds to show me photos of a Harpy Eagle on her phone, photos that will haunt my nightmares for the rest of my days).

BK: Shifting gears away from horrifying sky demons to more ground-based abominations, is there any real way to keep squirrels away from a feeder?
JD: Oh sure. We approach it three different ways at the store. Either buy a squirrel-proof feeder, or you can baffle the pole your feeder is on. If all else fails, give them food they don’t like. Safflower is something they don’t like because it’s bitter. The other option is hot pepper bird food. Every type of food we offer comes in a hot pepper version so you can keep squirrels, raccoons and deer from eating it; but birds will eat because they don’t have the taste receptors.
SD: It’s the straight capsaicin.

BK: You should have brought some out; we could have crumbled some up on some tacos. Okay, I have a trivia night coming up. Any bird facts I can throw in there?
SD: You know house finches? Until the 1940s, there were none on the East Coast. People would capture and cage these things and basically keep them as songbirds. There was a whole trade going on. Eventually the feds got wind of what was going on, and there were a bunch of pet store dealer folks who knew the heat was coming and released their populations into the wild. So, for the past 60 years they have happily thrived on the East Coast. All these house finches you see around here are descendants of birds released in New York.

BK: So, we have the Joe Exotics of the bird world to thank for house finches.
SD: There was a person who decided it would be a grand idea to bring over a pair of every bird mentioned in Shakespeare. So, thanks to him, there are starlings everywhere and none of them are native birds.

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