Low budget entertainment can be a real hoot

When the kids were little and the money was tight (which it can be when you're raising four of them) we managed a few Braves games and a trip to Six Flags every year.

But a lot of the kids' entertainment - and enrichment - came from visits to little specialty shops. The owners were knowledgeable and passionate about their business, and always willing to share their passion with the kids.

I relived those days during a recent visit to the Wild Bird Center in Johns Creek. According to Linda Valadez, who owns the store with her husband Alex, many other mothers are still doing what I did.

"We have lots of home-schoolers come in. They are so knowledgeable and fun to talk to," Valadez said.

Of course, looking around the store, I could see Valadez has a lot to talk about. Open bins of bulk bird seed line one wall and she can tell kids not only which birds eat each seed, but also why. She has a display of bird feeders made from recycled plastic bottles that look like tiny little extended stay motels. Books, DVDs and puzzles make up a large part of the inventory along with various novelty gifts. The latest toy Valadez likes to demonstrate is a camera that can be attached to a birdhouse.

"It runs into your TV and you can watch everything happening. My 3-year-old grandson Peyton watched a bird build her nest and lay her eggs."

But the store is for more than just bird lovers. Valadez stocks Down Under pots, in which you root plants upside-down, and weatherproof paintings for the deck, patio or even the garden. Other artwork includes handcrafted metal yard sculptures and stained glass sun catchers by local artist Ann Coxwell.

Valadez, a retired travel agent, hasn't lost her knack for finding interesting and inexpensive things for families to do together. For March 21, she's invited Monteen McCord, a certified National Wildlife Federation NatureQuest Instructor, to spend the day showing off her birds of prey.

McCord has been caring for orphaned and injured migratory birds for more than 25 years. Through her organization, HawkTalk (www.HawkTalk.org), she uses non-releasable birds to educate - and entertain - schools, civic associations, youth groups and corporate organizations interested in understanding wild birds and the roles they play in nature and our lives. She's a consultant to Zoo Atlanta and has assisted many Eagle Scouts in earning their badges.

McCord will be visiting the Wild Bird Center with her hawk, Scully and owls, Sam and Nigel, from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. For a donation, kids can don a glove and have their picture taken with Nigel.

But you don't have to be a kid to have fun with McCord and her birds. Even as an empty nester, I find her to be a hoot.

Susan Larson is a Lilburn resident. E-mail her at susanlarson4@yahoo.com.