Former nurse's passion for birds takes flight with new Wild Birds Unlimited store in Kanata

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Bird lover Kindell Tolmie, seen with her husband and business partner Joshua Tolmie, left her nursing career to open a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise store in Kanata. Photo by Caroline Phillips
Editor's Note

For 15 years, Kindell Tolmie worked as a nurse at the Civic campus of The Ottawa Hospital, caring for patients who were recovering from brain surgery and strokes. 

“I loved being a nurse,” Tolmie said in an interview while speaking on the front porch of her country-style home in the rural community of Carp. “I loved connecting with people, I loved talking to people. 

“Making somebody’s day a little better is a big part of who I am.”

That’s why so many friends and colleagues were surprised when Tolmie announced she was quitting nursing to open a Wild Birds Unlimited franchise store in Kanata. It was less of a shock to those familiar with Tolmie’s passion for birds. She’s a third-generation birder.

“Birds have always just been part of my life,” she explained while quietly watching an adult male hairy woodpecker teach his offspring how to eat from a nearby bird feeder. 

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A pair of hairy woodpeckers (adult male and juvenile), as seen outside the home of Kindell and Joshua Tolmie, owners of Wild Birds Unlimited Kanata. Photo by Kindell Tolmie.

Tolmie didn’t venture into the world of small business alone. She was joined by her husband, Joshua Tolmie. He’s also a partner at recruitment agency PinPoint Talent, which focuses on the technology industry. 

As for retail space, the couple found available storefront at 420 Hazeldean Rd. The west-end shop, formerly a SupperWorks location, first needed to be renovated, though.

To fund the costs of getting a new franchise store off the ground, Tolmie cashed in her nursing pension and secured a loan from RBC. The business was originally slated to open on Mother’s Day. Those plans changed once COVID-19 hit.

Leaving a stable job to try one’s hand at entrepreneurship is a gamble at the best of times. Add the cruel twist of a global pandemic and any fledgling business is a sitting duck.

“Perhaps the part that stings the most is the grand opening, because it was going to be big,” said Tolmie of her plans to bring in such special guests as raptors (birds of prey, not the basketball team).

Working in the Tolmies’ favour is the fact that birdwatching has been soaring in popularity. It’s become one of the fastest-growing hobbies in North America. The couple quickly set up a Facebook page for Wild Birds Unlimited Kanata. Within a few months they accumulated 3,000 followers and were feeling reassured by the “better than expected” sales garnered through social media.

On July 6, Wild Birds Unlimited Kanata will officially be open for business, both at its store and through online sales.

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Wild Birds Unlimited at 420 Hazeldean Rd. is preparing to finally open on July 6th after months of delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Caroline Phillips  

Despite the fact that the pandemic is pushing many small businesses online, the Tolmies value the human connection that a physical store can provide. The showroom will sell bird seed, feeders and garden and nature products but it will also be a place where hobbyists can connect, share information and participate in organized bird-watching hikes along the National Capital Commission’s Old Quarry Trail. The trailhead is close to the store.

“We want it to be a community hub,” said Tolmie. “There are a lot of conversations and a lot of sharing of experiences about this hobby that you don’t get from just buying online.”

Customers have been known to phone Tolmie at home as early as 7 o’clock in the morning to tell her about interesting bird sightings (early birds catch the worm but early birders catch the birds). Tolmie is happy to take such calls. In her mind, she's nurturing her new baby of a business. “She is so excited and so genuine about it,” said Joshua.

The Tolmies originally hail from the northern Ontario city of Thunder Bay. They made Ottawa their home, in part because Kindell’s father suffers from heart problems and is treated at the world-class University of Ottawa Heart Institute. It was his near-fatal heart attack last year that caused Tolmie to reevaluate her own life, resulting in her career change. 

Tolmie’s dad, Bill Smith, is a life-long birder, as were his parents before him. 

"Life is short. Let’s do what we love."

“I went from being an exhausted shift-working nurse to wanting to find a career path in a hobby that I’m passionate about,” said Tolmie. “Life is short. Let’s do what we love. It was a huge leap, obviously, to go from nursing to selling bird food.”

The past several months of being cooped up at home has led to more people of all ages appreciating nature, including birds. 

“You don’t really realize how much is around you until you tune in and pay attention,” said Tolmie. “The birds have brought us joy throughout this pandemic. We’ve been home more and we’ve been able to catch those opportunities that we might have otherwise missed, as these birds have moved through our property.”

This week marked the two-year anniversary from when the Tolmies moved to their Carp home in the woods, leaving behind their Kanata townhouse with its “postage stamp-sized” backyard, as described by Tolmie.

Country life has been good to the Tolmies, as evidenced by the lush vegetable garden that their two daughters, Paige, 12, and Marlow, 10, have been growing during the pandemic. The family owns two dogs, three cats, three hens and 15 chicks — all of whom have their own names. As well, there are at least two dozen bird feeders on the property and several bird baths. 

It’s pure coincidence that the bird lovers bought a home on a road called Falcon Brook. Come to think of it, they’re also opening Wild Birds Unlimited Kanata in a neighbourhood called Eaglesons Corners.

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Kindell Tolmie of Wild Birds Unlimited Kanata feeds her hens outside her home in Carp. Photo by Caroline Phillips

One of Tolmie’s greatest joys is watching her feathered friends throughout the four seasons. Her favourite species is the black-capped chickadee.

“It’s interesting, because the reaction from people has been mixed when they listen to the transition in my career path,” said Tolmie. “They say, ‘Are you crazy?’ They say, ‘How are you going to be able to sell bird food?’ They say, ‘You’re a nurse, you have a great career’.

“But, it’s the people who know me, who know us, and know our drive that say, ‘You’ll be fine’.”

– caroline@obj.ca