Virginia Culter: The Bird Lady of Hilton Head Island

Virginia Culter

The painted bunting, rightfully considered one of the most beautiful birds in North America, causes a stir wherever it alights. Recently, the media of New York City were agog at the sighting of one in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. The painted bunting may be a little more common here in the Lowcountry, but its appearance is nonetheless one that sticks with anyone who chances to see it.

The same could be said for a bright yellow Jeep often seen traversing the island, adorned with a “Bird Lady” license plate. Many have seen it fleetingly, and nearly everyone who has remembers it.

So who owns this remarkable vehicle? It should come as no surprise that this Jeep is property of the bird lady herself, Virginia Culter.

Not only can Culter tell you where to spot painted bunting, she can tell you the best way to entice them into your backyard. (Hint: use millet).

“It’s interesting to see what kinds of birds you can attract with different seeds,” Culter said. “My education was teaching. So I teach people to be successful in backyard feeding. I show them what works and why the big-box store bag of bird seed doesn’t.”

That education generally takes place in Culter’s store of 21 years, Wild Birds Unlimited in Festival Centre.

“Teaching is a big part of it because you can make so many mistakes,” she said. “We don’t get goldfinch until January, and they eat thistle. I have people who come in during the summer and say, ‘Well I bought a thistle feeder and didn’t see any birds.’ I tell them, ‘Well, if you’d have come here I’d have been able to tell you to put it on your Christmas list.’”

But beyond the chance to educate customers, Culter sees each person that walks in the door as a fellow enthusiast in a hobby that first entranced her when she was just 2 years old watching birds through a window in Louisville, Kentucky.

“I love working in a place like this because all the customers that come in want to come in. It’s not like when you have to pick out shoes to go with a dress for a party tonight. You don’t have to do it. They want to do it, and they enjoy it,” she said.

Culter’s own joy of bird feeding is what brought her to the first Wild Birds Unlimited store in Indianapolis, where she became a regular customer of the company’s owner, Jim Carpenter. When her husband, William, found himself downsized at 52 from American Harvester, he suggested she follow her passion.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you go do that bird thing that you love?’ and I told him, ‘I don’t know how to do it,’” she said with a laugh. As luck would have it, the couple began looking through franchise books to find that Carpenter had started franchising his Wild Birds Unlimited concept. Since Culter’s second love is golf, a Hilton Head Island location seemed like the perfect fit.

And now, 21 years later, Culter’s Wild Birds Unlimited franchise is flying high, locals get to benefit from her expertise, and every once in a while savvy traffic watchers get to catch a glimpse of the bright yellow Jeep that belongs to the island’s resident “Bird Lady.”