Of a Feather

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o cardinals really mate for life?  According to John Carreau, local birder and owner of Nashville’s Wood Thrush Shop on Davidson Drive, you could say that. The life expectancy of these birds, which often spend up to one year with the same partner, is about one year as well. What about that hawk circling overheard? Was it stalking your terrier? “It wasn’t,” Carreau says, “It just wasn’t.” On the other hand, Carreau will tell you that the winter-nesting Great-Horned Owl, the one you might have seen in Percy Warner Park, won’t hesitate to make some “pretty good contact” with any unsuspecting hiker who comes too close for its comfort. Beware the “formidable talons” on that one. They’ll puncture your scalp like… well, like formidable talons.

 Carreau knows his stuff, but he doesn’t consider himself obsessed. “There are really two types of birders” says Carreau. “You’ve got the serious birders” (he waves a copy of Birder’s World Magazine; think binoculars, high socks, shorts; think field guides), “and then the backyard birders. I’m a little of both”.

            Carreau has owned the Wood Thrush Shop for the past 14 years. His loyal (and only) employee, Melissa Flint, has worked alongside him for 10 of those. They have sold between six and eight thousand pounds of seed… and that’s just this week. Birdseed was the main merchandise of the shop when it first opened, but it has since expanded to selling gifts, garden accessories, feeders, and other backyard bird-watching supplies. According to Flint, new customers to this “mom and pop shop” often mistake her for Carreau’s wife, sister, or mother. This is not surprising. The two work together interchangeably. Carreau is a tall figure in a striped polo and khakis, with clipped hair and a placid face. Flint’s gently lined, neighborly appearance, shoulder-length plume of graying hair, and brown linen ensemble radiate warmth. The shop itself has been around for 22 years; its original sign, with scored wood and peeling paint, is mounted on the wall behind feeders and squirrel-baffling systems.

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            “If I could be Mother Nature, I would,” says Flint, who considers herself a backyard birder. “I can’t stand any type of cruelty to anything.” She’s serious. When a customer came to her with a tale about shooting the cats stalking at his feeder, she “went ballistic” and sent him out the door. Her eyes, clouded with emotion at the recounting of this incident, suddenly shine with reverence when she points out the trunk of what was once a stately Elm tree. It’s the “heart and soul” of Flint’s property, which stands in a corner of the store next to a wooden raccoon-family figurine.

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            Entering Wood Thrush Shop is like entering an enchanted forest.  The air smells faintly of stone and freshly cut wood. Countless feeders dangle at eye level: shimmering, cylindrical hummingbird feeders and hanging platforms for the song bird mix. Artisan birdhouses line the walls, along with colorful bird snapshots, gnomes, owl figurines galore, and garden stones engraved with all brands of warnings, wisdom, and wisecracks: “Never mind the dog—Beware of the kids”; “Martha Stewart doesn’t live here”; “Grow Dammit.” Four-foot-tall wind chimes called Corinthian Bells hang from the ceiling. The sound of a flowing stream and the occasional bird call floats on the air. Hanging on the wall near a customer’s snapshot of an albino squirrel is a hidden gem: a cartoon picture of Noah’s ark, riddled with holes. Underneath it the caption reads, “The woodpecker might have to go.” And, of course, in the middle of the shop are piles of enormous seed bags.

According to Flint, all seedeaters love the black sunflower seeds. Safflower seeds keep away starlings, grackles, and squirrels. Some of the other varieties of feed include the “woodland blend,”  “woodpecker gourmet,” and even “bushytail treat” for the mammals. Flint says that their feed does not contain any bad fillers like that of the “big box company stores.” (Like Flint, Carreau has some Mother Nature in him too). Sure enough, in the back of the shop he keeps a refrigerator dedicated to vats of dormant mealworms. “By the way,” Carreau says, “Bluebirds are the biggest fans of mealworms.” Since supply determines demand, the shop stays well stocked—a reassuring sight to any committed birder, seeing as there was a nationwide shortage of mealworms in May that caused quite a lot of unrest in the bird community.

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            Carreau doesn’t limit his birding to his store; he makes it a point to get out in the field daily, walking his dog every morning in the Harpeth River State Park where he watches birds and an occasional bald eagle. He and Flint agree that watching birds is the most peaceful way to start a day. Carreau keeps a life list and a yard list of species that he has seen, but he makes it a point that his hobby doesn’t dominate his life the way golf can. “A lot of the time,” he admits, “I can tell my golf buddies what kind of birds are around by identifying their calls.”

Still, he has no trouble recounting a few of his most exciting birding moments. Carreau has observed the largest and smallest species in North America, right here in Tennessee. He saw a pair of Whooping Cranes, a species that is near extinction, in the Bells Bend area last winter, and he was able to glimpse the miniscule Calliope Hummingbird when a birder in Madison left her feeder up into November.

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Though bird watching is a peaceful activity, Carreau feels that it is not as easy as one might think; for him, the most challenging part of birding is learning the birdcalls. He uses a handy piece of software in the store to narrow down the list of possible species that he hears but “can’t identify while out in the field.” According to Carreau, some of his best bird sightings occur in the downtown area. He recalls a particular instance when he spotted a “kettle” of thousands of chimney swifts swarming in a funnel. So for those of you surrounded by more concrete than trees, do not despair. Apparently, it’s possible to behold such a spectacle no matter where you are.

            Though she does not venture far from home, Flint has a special bond with her backyard birds. For two summers, she and her husband became familiar with a family of black vultures. The large birds made themselves at home on her pool deck, where they sunned themselves on the railing and drank the water. She recounts, fondly, the experience of watching the babies play on the deck.

            “You know they’re babies because they’re huge. They’re bigger than the parents! They look like Big Bird, actually, except black.”

            Flint even has pictures of her vultures, who still come to visit.

            “I like them a lot. They keep our woods pretty clean, too.”

            Flint admits that she can’t see an empty feeder without refilling it. “My interest grew into compassion,” she says. Carreau chirps in that even when people are struggling economically, they’re reluctant to stop feeding their birds. He’ll probably be curious to see how things play out this winter, as a birder and a small business owner. Like migratory birds in winter, the economy is headed south. 


--Grace Tipps