By Kathy Portie for California Watchable Wildlife
Nature has always been an important part of Randall Putz’s life, growing up in a nature loving family in Santa Barbara, California.
“Thanks to the wisdom of my parents, I was exposed to nature at a very early age,” Putz said. “One of my earliest memories is my mom used to wake me up in the middle of the night when it was Santa Ana wind conditions. And we would go out on the front lawn and dance in the wind.”
His love of the outdoors and nature evolved when he moved to Big Bear in 1999 — hiking, trail running and cycling. But it was from his wife, Beth Wheat, that the Valley’s wild bird population came into focus for him.
“I have to give Beth credit,” Putz said. “When she raised her sons up here, she always had a feeder and went to see Bill Downs and did the whole wild bird feeding thing. She encouraged me to consider it, but I didn’t until I ran into Bill at a fundraiser, and he told me all about his experience with Wild Wings.”
The conversation triggered an idea for Putz to ponder. “I thought maybe that was something we could do up here, because we had been considering what business we could do (in Big Bear) that would take advantage of our unique environment, a business we could feel good about,” Putz said.
Chirp Nature Center is more than a bird seed store. The shop features feeders, houses, birdbaths, seed, suet and nectars, of course. But you can also find bird related gifts — jewelry, books, educational toys, hiking and camping gear, home décor and more. During the spring and summer seasons, Putz and staff lead monthly free bird walking tours at various locations throughout the Valley. There are also special events like bird talks, entertainment gatherings and coffee tasting.
In 2018 Putz and Wheat tested out their retail concept at the Big Bear Farmers’ Market. It was an immediate success. They decided to try out a retail store and leased a space in the Big Bear Lake Village. Then came 2020. “That was a boon for all outdoor activities, especially wild bird feeding,” Putz said. “That helped accelerate our growth.”
When the opportunity came to purchase a building on Bonanza Trail at the western edge of the Village, Putz and Wheat jumped at the chance. The main attraction of the place was its backyard, complete with a stage.
“Our goal of all this from the beginning has been to connect people to nature by using wild birds as inspiration,” Putz said. “Lately that has taken on another associated imperative, which is our sustainability credo. It’s very important for us to do our best to move increasingly towards what we like to call sustainable retail.”
It has been a challenge, but Putz said they are forging ahead to “support wild birds and nature, and support an exceptional retail experience, but do it in a way that minimizes the impact on the world around us,” he said.
People have noticed. Chirp has won the Best of Big Bear award from the local newspaper, the Big Bear Grizzly, and was named the Best Small Wild Bird Retailer in the entire U.S. at the Wild Bird Expo in 2022. “We’re very grateful for the enthusiastic support we have received, from our customers and supporters,” Putz said.
New products available at Chirp Nature Center that fit in the sustainability credo include Smithsonian-certified bird friendly coffee and sustainable bath and skincare products.
As Chirp continues to evolve, Putz’s enthusiasm for Big Bear’s nature and wildlife grows as well. “It has ignited, certainly significantly increased my passion for the natural world around us and its importance,” he said. “With each passing day, I feel more and more strongly that we collectively need to do a better job at taking better care of the natural world around us.”
As the proud father of two children, Putz has been active in the community for more than 20 years. Putz, who has a degree in journalism and advertising from University of Oregon, has more than one career that he is juggling along with the store. He’s a graphic designer and a local public figure as an elected official and trails advocate.
It was a meeting with retired local educator Phil Hamilton that started what Putz likes to call his public engagement in the community. It started with the Trails Coalition, which evolved into the Big Bear Valley Trails Foundation. Putz was a founding member.
From there, Putz served on the local school board as an elected trustee for six years. “I transitioned over to the city as a council member in 2012,” Putz said. He served twice as the city’s mayor, including his current stint in 2023. Putz was re-elected last year for another four-year term on the city council.
“It’s been interesting and filled with lots of lessons,” Putz said about his public life. “Part of the burden, and the gift at the same time, is that I’ve gotten to do a lot of different things (for the community). I’ve had the responsibility, and privilege and honor to (serve). That has been very valuable.”
What does Putz see in the future for wild birds and Chirp?
“I’m hopeful for a future where the wild bird population declines are reversed and humans will do a better job of supporting birds and our environment so we can all survive,” Putz said. “If you use that idea of the canary in the coal mine, birds aren’t doing too great, which means that we’re not doing too great. As the birds go, so do we. So that’s my hope that we can collectively get our human act together to better support the planet and the things that coexist on it.”
As for Chirp Nature Center, the possibilities are endless. “I’m very excited, we continue to try out new initiatives,” Putz said. “We’re always looking for new ways to engage with our customers and supporters. We’re always looking for new ways to innovate how we better connect people with nature.”