A robin in New Haven, CT

For the Birds

Step into The Fat Robin in Hamden and you may think you’ve stepped into a woodland glade. Virtual birds sing. A miniature fountain burbles. The air smells pleasantly of seed and freshly cut wood.

“We try to make it serene when people walk in,” shop owner Carol Zipp says. She and her husband Jim Zipp have owned this hidden gem of a store since 1995, when they decided to turn a job loss into a dream project. Jim was a wildlife photographer and Carol had a background in biology. Between them, they thought, they could open a shop dedicated to birds and nature. “A lot of people… thought we were crazy,” Carol says.

At The Fat Robin, bird-lovers will find plenty to crow about. There are birdhouses, both pre-assembled and in kits, for wood ducks, screech owls, bluebirds, downy woodpeckers, chickadees, wrens and even bats. There are birdbaths, including heated models that keep the water from freezing in the winter. There are binoculars and spotting scopes for serious bird-watching. There are birdfeeders of every imaginable shape and size, all designed to deter those pesky squirrels. There are small blocks of suet and big bags of seed and loose nuts and seeds and cracked corn if you’d prefer to concoct your own blend. There are bird- and nature-themed gifts galore, from coasters to posters.

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Carol says there tend to be two kinds of bird-lovers: those who like to go to the birds, and those who prefer the birds to come to them. The first group of customers, starting out, need “binoculars and books,” whereas the second group is more interested in a good feeder, the right kind of seed and a Connecticut-specific book to learn about the birds that are likely to show up in their own backyard.

“There’s a learning curve,” Carol says. “In the beginning, all the brown birds look the same, and it takes awhile to kind of separate them out. It’s always a work in progress because there is a lot of variation between certain birds.” For example, many types of hawks have similar coloring, “so you have to look beyond just the colors… Usually the first thing people think of is what color they are.”

When learning to bird-watch with binoculars, Carol suggests standing still and finding a bird first, then raising your binoculars and focusing, rather than scanning an area while looking through the binoculars. In addition to using your eyes to identify birds, you can use your ears. But learning birdcalls is difficult for most people, Carol says. There are birdcall apps for smartphones, but Carol feels the easiest way to learn is still with a CD and “time in the field.” Either way you go, the rewards can be great. Beginning birders can expect to find about 25 different species in the winter in their own neighborhood, Carol says. Those with greater experience and the ability to travel can find many more.

Carol mostly does her own bird-watching on vacations. But she’s not inclined to maintain a “life list” of species spotted. “Certain birds, I will try to go see if they’re in the state, but I don’t chase that many of them,” she says. Unusual birds do turn up nearby. She recalls a varied thrush, normally found on the west coast, in one customer’s back yard. Another customer found an adult male western rufous hummingbird. And this year, Carol says, there’s an “irruption”—a rapid influx beyond the normal range—of snowy owls. Other out-of-towners have shown up unexpectedly on Hamden’s Lake Whitney; Carol recalls seeing an anhinga and a phalarope in recent years. “Sometimes it’s related to weather systems,” she explains. “If we’re getting a hurricane, birders are often out looking for those birds to show up.”

While some of The Fat Robin’s customers may know enough to call in the Zipps when they see something unique, you don’t need to know your birds in order to shop. In fact, Jim and Carol and their son Ryan, who works in the shop, are all happy to meet new birders and answer their questions. A little bit of knowledge will help bird-lovers avoid simple mistakes, like mounting a birdhouse in the wrong habitat or letting sugar water spoil in a hummingbird feeder.

Many customers visit the shop weekly or monthly to restock their supplies. But some wander in without a plan, happy to get off Whitney Avenue and enjoy a few moments of serenity and birdsong.

The Fat Robin
3000 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-4pm
(203) 248-7068

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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