Builder for the Birds
THE HOBBY of G. W. Randall appears to have a double motive. It is a benevolent enterprise which has become profitable. The idealistic is combined with the practical in a way to satisfy the esthetic urge and, at the same time, put coins into the pocket.
The project is called "Birdhaven" and is located on the top of an Ozark hill, four miles west of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. During its five years of operation it has become one of the show places of the area.
The ornithologists list 354 species of birds as native to Arkansas and many of them fly to Birdhaven to feed and to nest in "Bird Town," which is a leading feature of the project. Bipeds without feathers come, too. About 2,000 people registered in the breezeway booth of the Randall home during 1955. They followed the guide through Bird Town and took a look at the workshop and the display room filled with birdhouses and accessories. No fee is charged for the trip, but visitors have the opportunity to buy what they want from the shop in the breezeway.
There is a great variety of items which range in price from fifty cents for a miniature birdhouse to $100 for a sixteen-room palatial mansion for martins. All the houses are painted in gay colors and have removable bottoms to facilitate cleaning. The habits of each species of birds are considered in the construction of its potential home. Some of the houses are quite simple in construction, others are masterpieces of architecture. All are built for utility as well as show.
MR. AND MRS. Randall went to the Ozarks from Chicago in 1950, seeking a retirement home. Mr. Randall had led an active life, first as a showman in the carnival and circus fields and later as an artist with a photo engraving company. Eureka Springs was selected as a site for the retirement home. The couple purchased a thirty-four-acre tract with modern improvements, tall trees and a big spring.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Randall were fond of birds and one of the first things they did at their new home was to set up feeders and houses for their feathered friends. Snack bars with holes filled with suet were placed on trees to encourage the feathered visitors to make themselves at home.
One day a woman visitor asked Mr. Randall why he did not make the houses and feeders to sell to tourists. She suggested the name, Birdhaven. The Randalls thought it over and decided it would be an excellent hobby and might develop into a profitable business. A workshop was set up and the work began. Raw materials from the woods, and from the lumberyard in town, were available to supply the shop.
Within a few months Bird Town became a reality, with a large white replica of a courthouse of the Old South, built especially for martins, a mayor's house, a cafeteria, a broadcasting station, a general store with all the Ozark trappings, a church, filling station, and houses of various types in the residential district.
A pair of wrens took up residence in the mayor's house while bluebirds preferred the general store with its open cracker barrel. The martins soon discovered the courthouse and made a thorough investigation before taking up residence. Robins appeared and Mr. Randall built a structure of special design for them. Bluejays became the self-appointed police force of the town and were useful for giving warning when cats appeared in the vicinity. The birds soon lost their sense of fear and appeared to feel at home in their new environment. A humming bird became so tame that it perched on Mrs. Randall's shoulder and a nuthatch ate from her hand.
The population of the town has increased each year but there is always plenty of room for new migrants. New additions to Bird Town are added as needed. There is plenty of room for the town to grow if the population continues to increase. Some of the birds are returning year after year for nesting while others are one-year tenants.
AFTER COMPLETING Bird Town, Mr. Randall began building houses and other novelties for the trade. He now produces more than a score of items, some of them being his own inventions, but all related to the feathered tribe. When tourists drive up to Birdhaven they follow an established routine. They first take a trip through Bird Town with one of the Randalls as guide. The trip ends at the breezeway of the Randall residence where they register and have opportunity to purchase houses or accessories. Some of the visitors give special orders which are built to their specifications and shipped.
One of the best sellers is an Old English style house for wrens, which sells at $5. It is made of waterproof plywood with Masonite roof. A lantern swings in front of the house. It can be had either with a peg that fits into an iron pipe or one that goes on a bracket. The house is painted white and has a red roof. A slightly larger house, but of the same construction, is suitable for bluebirds. Wren houses seem to be Mr. Randall's specialty for he makes many types that are suited to this species of bird. There are cute little rustic houses at $1 and $2. Clown Head houses sell at $3. The Alice in Wonderland house is out of the ordinary and brings $3. The elaborate Story Book wren house retails at $7. It is a dwelling that should make a family of wrens very happy, if birds are endowed with esthetic sense.
The price range for the smaller houses in Mr. Randall's shop runs from $1 to $5. There is a special swallow house, stained brown, and with special brackets for hanging. A robin shelter or nesting box is useful as a feeder during the winter season. Miniature birdhouses are made to stick in flower pots for decoration. Light houses are made out of flower pots and there is a very attractive castle made of forty pieces cemented together. The elaborate martin houses vary in size and price from six rooms at $15 to sixteen rooms at $100. This is the most expensive house Mr. Randall builds. It is extra well made, Duco cemented as well as nailed, and painted black inside. The Courthouse is a specially designed martin house of fourteen rooms and sells at $35.
NUMEROUS FEEDING devices are made at Birdhaven. Snack bars are made of cedar or native pine and sell at sixty cents. The bird cafeteria is a practical feeder with rings for hanging. It is stained brown with a green roof and has a pine cone in front for decoration. These feeders may be had with peg to set in pipe instead of hanging. Houses and feeders set in this manner are very practical as they keep cats and squirrels from climbing up to the box. The special bird buffet holds a generous supply of feed that flows down automatically as the birds eat. It has a rack in front for suet. This is a picnic ground for song birds which may eat and sing to their heart's desire. Mr. Byrd's Filling Station is built with glass sides so that one can see how much feed there is in it. It has a suet holder attached.
The variety of the architecture and furnishings in the Birdhaven products is astonishing. In the country store, for example, there is a barrel and two feed sacks on the front porch and entrance is made through the letter O in the word "store". The Wishing Well, which sells at $5, has a revolving disc with four different size holes and may be used by different sized birds. There is a little bucket at the well. Some of the houses are two-tone structures, all painted in gay colors. A feature of Mr. Randall's houses is the removable bottom which makes them easy to keep clean.
Birdhaven products in addition to houses and feeders include life-size birds (cardinal, bluebird, golden finch), mounted on wires to put in window boxes or flower beds. They are in gay colors and sell at fifty cents each. There are black cat door-stops (for good luck) and pony pick holders. The nodding bird is an attractive wooden novelty. It stands about three feet high and the steel neck permits the bird to nod in the wind.
THE COST of materials for the Birdhaven project is exceptionally low as wooden boxes may be procured at local stores for about ten cents each. One sizeable box will supply enough boards to make four or five birdhouses. Some of the raw material comes from the woods which Mr. Randall finds on his own land. Paints, metal parts, nails, screws and a few other items are bought in as large quantities as possible to reduce the cost. The biggest expense was the initial set-up of the shop with saws and other necessary mechanical devices and power tools.
Mr. Randall keeps the business within retirement limitations. He is not interested in expansion. He has had numerous calls from gift shops for bird houses, but he turns them down. He is satisfied to gross $1,000 a year with around sixty per cent of it profit. The business could be expanded to three or four times this amount, but the Randalls are not interested. As now operated, it keeps them busy but is not a burden. They have plenty of time for cultural and recreational activities.
There are no dull days for the Randalls since they started Birdhaven. Every day is an adventure with the possibilities of new visitors, both bird and man. They have turned a happy hobby into a profitable enterprise. It satisfies the creative urge and provides a substantial retirement income. At the annual hobby show at Eureka Springs in October, the Randall display of bird houses is a top attraction.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.