Ed. Note: You'll see them lining the shelves in most garden departments: ever-alert plastic owls. Beyond their spookily lifelike appearance, you wouldn't think plastic owls would cause much controversy. Yet, the affordable bird repellers did just that, ticking off competitors with more expensive products. Fortunately, inventor Neal Caldwell weathered the firestorm of publicity surrounding his radical, hard-bodied owls, and his company still proudly sells them at your local Wal-Mart. The rotating-head model is coolest.
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For a man immersed in possibly the biggest controversy to ever rock the bird repeller industry, Neal Caldwell looks utterly calm and collected. His eyes betray nothing more than the amused tolerance of a man sure of his convictions, unwilling to bow before outraged competitors or a skeptical media. Like so many innovators before him, his bold new ideas have been rejected by the defenders of the status quo even as theyre being embraced by the public. As far as hes concerned, he has nothing to apologize forhis plastic owls work, dadgumit. Just as long as you keep moving them around.
The dispute hit flashpoint in a page-one story in the June 26, 1997 Wall Street Journal. The ordinarily sober financial daily ran a blaring headline splashed across one entire column: "Birds Dont Buy It, So Is It Wise to Get Those Plastic Owls?" The story beneath related strong allegations: that Neal Caldwells hugely popular hard-bodied owlssold coast to coast from every Wal-Mart in the nationdidnt really scare away pesky birds as intended. Furthermore, as some practitioners of traditional bird-repelling methods charged, these lifelike plastic predators were in fact just very decorative perches.
Could it be? Could Caldwells Knoxville, Tenn.-based and family-owned Dalen Products have sold over 1 million bum owls to desperate, bird-blighted consumers? Sitting in the spartan office of his 100,000 sq. ft. factory, the slim, graying 64-year-old entrepreneur is adamant in defense of his beloved product. "We have known from the very beginning that if you put these out and dont move them around, then youll have a problem," he declares simply, eyes momentarily flashing. "But if theyre moved around, theyre effective for a long time."
And that simple credo may very well be the key to Caldwells success in the gardening products arenato keep moving forward. Indeed, the Natural Enemy Scarecrow® Great Horned Owl is but one of many innovations in gardening technology that Dalen Products has introduced in the last 20 years, from Weed-X® The Ultimate Porous Landscaping Fabric to the GuardN Eyes Bird Scaring Balloon ("Japan really swears by this product.") to a whole new advance in the plastic hard-bodied owl itself. But can his small company really go head-to-head with the big boys of the gardening biz? Thats exactly Caldwells intention.
It all began with the inflatable snake of 1981.
For the previous six years, Caldwell had been developing gardening products strictly for catalog sales. In 1975 he quit his job as an engineer at Robertshaw Controls and sank his childrens education fund into creating his first product: a miniature greenhouse called a cold-frame. "I thought itd be nice to take my creative ability and use it in my own business," he says matter-of-factly. Thankfully, mail order sales through the gardening catalogs were a successbut now he wanted to try retail distribution. And the product that would take him there was the inflatable snake.
One of his employees had a father-in-law who managed to ward off birds from his cherry trees in an unorthodox manner: He took a few feet of water hose and put it up in his tree like a snake. Consequently, he got cherries out of his tree for the first time ever. Caldwell immediately saw an opportunity.
"So we thought, well, if birds can be fooled by an old piece of rubber hose, you could make an inflatable one that really looks like a snake, with patterns and everything, and it ought to be even more successful." And so it was, with strong sales and critical accolades (The Charlotte Observer had this to say: "Possibly the most realistic vinyl version of a snake man could produce "). The next logical step was to create another, even more formidable inflatable predator.
"We followed it up with the inflatable owl, because the great horned owl is the most feared predator of birds that there is," Caldwell says in his slightly raspy, Cactus Pete voice. "And both of those were successful. In a few years we decided that, well, a lot of people were complaining that they couldnt keep their owls inflated over a long period of time, so well come out with a hard-bodied owl."
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