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Feeding the frenzy

by: Vern Uyetake, Scott Lukens, who started the Backyard Bird Shop stores in the early ‘90s, holds pieces of the stores’ best seller — birdseed.

By KARA BECKER

Staff Reporter

There aren't too many things more relaxing than enjoying a glass of lemonade while watching nature in your backyard after a long day of work.

Scott Lukens has made this hobby into a reality that many people all over Oregon can enjoy.

Lukens started the first Backyard Bird Shop in Lake Oswego in 1991 purely by accident. He was unable to convince retailers in shopping centers that his idea for a shop purely dedicated to enhancing the nature in one's own backyard would sell. Lukens refused to give up, and by chance stumbled upon a little house for rent in downtown Lake Oswego. It was here that the first Backyard Bird Shop was born.

Shop finds its wings

Lukens first moved to Lake Oswego 24 years ago. He was a member of the Portland Audubon Society, where he was an officer for 14 years. Lukens has always had a passion for wild birds, both in understanding them and attracting them.

Both Lukens and his wife worked for Fortune 500 companies before the first Backyard Bird Shop and traveled a lot. When they decided that it was time to start a family, Lukens chose to turn a hobby of birding into a job that he could share and pass on to many other generations of families.

That passion is what has been channeled into a total of seven unique, specialized stores with personable staff all throughout Oregon. Lukens doesn't want to get any bigger as he is not a franchise. He wants to be able to manage and maintain his stores in a very individual way, driving out to each location about once a week to make sure things are running smoothly and to connect with longtime customers.

'My employees must have a real interest not only in wildlife and birds, but also in helping share that information with others,' Lukens said.

There is very little turnover, with about 35 employees in all of the seven stores.

'We really offer empowering information to our customers to help them be successful in attracting birds and wildlife to their backyard,' Lukens said. 'My employees are very informative and helpful. What develops are loyal repeat customers that not only get advice on how to get started but also get help troubleshooting an issue if something comes up.'

Charles Oldham, who works in wildlife conservation and has lived in Lake Oswego since 1985, has been a longtime customer and friend of Lukens.

'The personnel are outstanding - they are very dedicated to the business, doing what they can do for the environment and habitat,' Oldham said. 'You need three things for a successful store: good selection, good service, good quality and good price. That combination with the kind of personnel they have is incredible. A general store won't tell you all that.'

Food, feeders, feathers

Lukens points out that most people go to general pet stores to get bird seed or bird houses, and that these stores are essentially self-service. The difference with the Backyard Bird Shops are that they are entirely dedicated to attracting not only birds, but all kinds of wildlife that can already be found in your backyard.

'They are really for the hobbyist,' said Lukens.

Lukens says the main item he sells is birdseed, and a lot of it. Every 12 days a rail car from North Dakota arrives with 130,000 lbs. of birdseed to be distributed at their main store. The seed doesn't have to sit in a warehouse and is fresh because it is purchased specifically for all of the Backyard Bird Shops. Customers can come in and select from open bins which kind they like or create their own mixes of fresh birdseed.

Another thing that Lukens has in his stores are environmentally-friendly products.

'There is much more sensitivity to buy green products now than there used to be,' Lukens said. 'It also just makes more ecological sense.'

The stores also have recycled products, as well as many unique pieces from local vendors.

Lukens says that for the first-timer interested in attracting birds that they need four things: food, water, housing and cover. The easiest thing to do is to buy a bird feeder and fill it purely with sunflower seeds. He explains that wild birds are feeding all day long on different things and that all a feeder does is bring them closer to you. There is no need for a mix as they are already getting enough nutrients in the wild as it is.

Adding a birdbath also helps attract them as birds need water for drinking and preening. Lukens recommends if you own a cat or have cats come into your yard to place the birdfeeder or birdbath in a location where the cat can't hide next to it. You can even buy a Cat Stop, a sensor with an alarm that only cats can hear when they get too close.

Birdhouses, another popular item for the bird lover, are seasonal, usually from February to April.

Some summer must haves that Lukens recommends include having moving water in one's birdbath by using a dripper or a mister. The fresh moving water attracts birds, and both pieces allow you to regulate the flow of water coming out.

Another summer must have is the hummingbird feeder. The Backyard Bird Shop's sell simple ones like the HummZinger - a durable model of red plastic that is easy to clean - and also ones made of glass that can match your house. You should fill it with a sugar solution of four parts water, one part sugar and bring it to a boil for two minutes. It's important to change the nectar every 4 to 5 days as it will ferment quickly.

In addition to all of this, Backyard Bird Shops also have a seasonal newsletter that customers have to sign up for to receive. Right now there are 48,000 people signed up, all on their own accord, as Lukens doesn't believe in mass mailings.

In the newsletter there are tips, coupons, new items, and a schedule of bird walks and classes that Backyard Bird Shops hold on a regular basis. They are all focused on learning about different species of birds and how to locate them in the wild.

Locals flock to shop

Another longtime customer, John Hammerstad, semi-retired Professor Emeritus of Neurology at OHSU, also sings Backyard Bird Shop's praises.

'It provides a really unique place for birders to get everything they need,' Hammerstad said. 'The people who work there are very knowledgeable. They also have the most complete inventory around, with better quality as well.'

As for Lukens, he's merely living his dream.

His passion for sharing this joy with others is simple.

'In our work, so many of us are surrounded by steel and concrete that we love when we can go home and sit in your backyard or look out your window and see nature and touch it,' Lukens said. 'It also raises awareness to one's own backyard - it comes to life and hooks people. That's what my stores are all about, that hook.'