You could say that the lifestyle of Phil and Barbara Davis is strictly for the birds. When they aren't operating their business, the WildBird Center in Columbia, they're usually scanning the skies for unusual winged creatures.
"We've given up skiing for birding," said Barbara Davis. Their latest vacation was spent in Arizona with a bird touring group. "We did nothing but find birds from morning till night for seven days."
The Davises' interest began with backyard bird-watching. Soon they joined local bird clubs near their home in Davidsonville.
The original Wild Bird Center in Cabin John, Montgomery County, became a favorite place for the couple to buy bird food, feeders and houses. Andthe store was a good resource for information about birds.
"Our interest grew very quickly and we discussed the idea of opening a birdstore ourselves," said Barbara Davis.
"We approached the owner ofthe store in Cabin John about the possibility of buying a franchise.As a result, we are the first franchise store out of Wild Bird Centers of America Inc. The business has been very interesting; neither one of us had done anything like this before."
Howard County became the entrepreneurs' first choice for the business, which opened April 1990.
"Columbia has the highest percentage of people with advanceddegrees. They're people who are interested in the environment and nature and who are interested in educating their kids about these issues," said Phil Davis, 43.
Apparently the choice was a wise one. Saturday afternoons at the bird center are busy ones. One recent Saturday found a steady stream of bird enthusiasts at the store.
Columbiaresident Louise Risse, a frequent visitor to the center, brought Sarah O'Connor, her 7-year-old friend from Baltimore County. The two came to buy a 25-pound bag of peanut hearts.
"My bird feeder is filled with acorns. Sarah and I plan to empty it out and fill the feeder with the bag of peanuts," Risse said.
The store has 14 bins stockedwith everything from black-oil sunflower seeds -- a favorite morsel among certain species -- to mixed feed, often believed to be the mostpopular fowl tidbit.
Phil Davis gave a customer a pamphlet titled"Wild Bird Feeding Preferences" and talked about the differences between various seeds and the attraction of certain birds.
The variety of bird feeders can overwhelm a novice. Some attach to a window to enable undetected viewing from inside. Others hang from rods. And then there are those designed to safely repel squirrels.
Not to be ignored, squirrels can feast of corn-on-the-cob feeders specially for them.
Barbara Davis, 34, gave up her job as a defense contractor tooperate the business. Her husband, vice president of Diversified International Sciences Corp. -- a Lanham-based business that supplies the FAA with air traffic control software -- works weekends.
He advises customers, especially novice bird watchers, about types of binoculars. Saturdays, he often discusses his hobby of bird photography with other photographers who frequent the store.
The curiosity about his photographs of birds, which line the walls of the shop, prompted him to conduct an amateur bird photography contest. The 13 entries and some of their awards are displayed.
Another activity the couple offers through the store is bimonthly bird walks, which begin 8 a.m. Saturdays.
"We point out the birds, show them pictures from the field guide, we talk about when certain varieties of birds are in this location," Barbara Davis said.
On a recent trek, a group of about 20 bird watchers -- armed with binoculars and field guides -- trudgedoff to nearby Lake Elkhorn.
Among the species they spotted were agreat blue heron, hawks, blue jays, yellowthroat warblers, an Eastern phoebe and many others.
On other occasions, park rangers visit the Columbia Wild Life Center to talk about various birds that have been "rehabilitated."
Often they are injured owls, hawks, vultures and ducks that have been nursed back to health.
The birds are brought to the store, and visitors can get a close-up view of the birds perched with clipped wings in the pine trees outside of the shop. Once the birds recover, they are able to fly away. Birds who can't make a full recovery are given to state park officials, who use them in their educational programs.
And there are the other species of wild birds that provide a steady view for customers peering out the storefront window. A variety of feeders filled with food supply constant nourishment for them.
Ask the Davises and they will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about birds. Barbara Davis often lectures at garden clubs about her favorite topic.
The couple, in connectionwith the Wild Bird Centers of America Inc., also publishes a newsletter, Wild Bird News, every two months.
Barbara Davis responds to the following myths about birds:
* Don't feed birds in summer because they will avoid a proper diet.
"Not true," she said. "When the insects are out, the birds eat them and the seed. Incidentally, birdsconsume more seed in summer than in winter."
* Once you feed birds in the winter, you must continue, or they will lose their food supply.
"Their diet does not depend on what you are feeding them. Weather conditions may cause them to rely on you. However, in this climate, it is rare."
* Take down hummingbird feeders by Sept. 1 becauseit delays migration.
"That is false. The length of the days and the birds' instinct are the determining factor. As a matter of fact, Iencourage people to keep feeders out till October because migrating birds need to get their energy on the way down. Leaving feeders out can only help, never hurt."
* Baby birds will die if mothers feed them the wrong things from the feeders.
"False. Birds instinctivelyknow about feeding their young and they will not get an improper diet."
* Birds don't need water in the winter.
"Not true. They need to have their feathers conditioned in order to stay warm. When you have a bird bath (in the winter), all kinds of birds will show up. I saw three Eastern bluebirds in my bird bath one winter and I had never seen them in my neighborhood."