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Richard Lorentzen's bird feeders are popular with winter breeds of birds such as black capped chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds and woodpeckers. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Bird enthusiast invents squirrel-proof feeder

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When Audrey Lorentzen got sick and tired of raccoons raiding her suet feeders every night, a short honey-do list was hatched.

Make me a better birdfeeder, she told husband Richard.

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The rural Laporte man retreated to his barn workshop and fashioned a critter-proof feeder.

As with all good ideas, a cottage industry was born, called Chickadee Farm. Friends and relatives were his first customers. Demand was outpacing supply, Richard quickly learned.

In 1991, Richard started taking his birdfeeders to craft shows, where they were an instant hit.

"You know, stuff is made so slipshod these days," he lamented.

Today, the 77-year-old sells eight different models of feeders, mostly through the Internet and on E-bay and spends his retirement in the workshop or running packaged models to the Cass Lake post office to ship them out via priority mail.

The basic model uses two stainless steel mixing bowls surrounded by two wire funnels, one to protect the feed cylinder and the other to hold the seeds. This "double barrel" design lets birds extract a single seed, but doesn't allow them to make a seed mess, scattering food all over the ground.

The retired trucking company owner and minister said he spent hours watching bird behavior to perfect his design.

He still makes feeders to hold suet but the most popular models use black oil sunflower seeds.

Richard has lost track of how many he's made. There's the 8,000 he's sold through E-bay since 2000 and the 100 or so he sells at each craft show.

Before the Internet sales, his family would split up during the weekends, fanning out to hit as many craft shows as possible. Now he only does three or four major shows a summer. After all, the he'd like to enjoy his retirement.

"Being an entrepreneur is not a 40-hour per week job," he admits. "It takes all the hours you can give it."

The models sell for $26.95 to $44.95. The granddaddy, a feeder that holds 3½ gallons of seed, was a ridiculous idea, Audrey told him.

"They're too big; you'll never sell them," she cautioned of the "Super Feeder."

But sell them he has. They're popular with weekend lakeshore residents who like to keep their feeders stocked while they're gone.

One model that holds a seed mix has a 6-inch PVC pipe as its inner core. You can tighten it or loosen it to allow birds to get more or less seed, he demonstrated.

He sends optional perches to customers who demand them, but it's an unnecessary accessory, he maintains.

"Birds'll cling onto this anyplace," he said. "But people think birds gotta perch," so he sends dowels with the feeders.

His E-bay feedback page contains rave reviews. He takes PayPal, an Internet form of currency.

"People are just ecstatic about these things," he said. "They're indestructible."

One buyer even raved the feeder was rejected by a bear that emptied her other feeders.

But Lorentzen's found Internet customers to be demanding.

"If you don't get back to them right away they'll go somewhere else," he said. So he runs periodically back into the house to check his computer for orders or inquiries. Audrey doesn't want to be chained to the computer, he said.

The stainless steel and galvanized steel parts are rust-proof. People have had the feeders for 15 years with little wear and tear, he says.

"The real reason this works is squirrel behavior," he maintains. In his observations of bird behavior, he also studied the animals that try to raid feeders.

'They'll get on 'em," he said of the squirrels. "But they can't get seeds out of this, and even if they try, they may get one onto the ground."

Eventually they stop, frustrated at how much effort they have to exert for so little reward, he claims.

The feeders are available at the Lake George Café and Clem's Hardware in Cass Lake.

You can access the Chickadee Farm Web site at http://squirrelproofbirdfeeder.com/ or call 224-3194 to order a feeder.

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