Betty Pauciello fled the corporate world nearly 18 years ago, shedding a job as director of operations at a computer company that had become more about preparing layoff lists than anything else.

Actually, took flight might be a better way to describe Pauciello's departure, considering what lured her away:

Birds.

A longtime enthusiast of the feathered sort, the Bucks County resident decided to turn a backyard hobby into a career and, consequently, base her income on the eating habits of those weighing barely an ounce, if that.

Sluggish economy? Lucky for all those juncos, cardinals, and finches out there, an adoring public apparently prefers to scrimp on other indulgences so they can keep their feeders filled.

"I heard from customers . . . there were things they gave up, but this wasn't one of them," Pauciello said Wednesday, standing among bags of mixed seed and stacks of suet cakes in her Wild Birds Unlimited store on Limekiln Pike in Dresher, Montgomery County.

One of 275 franchise stores the Carmel, Ind., company has throughout North America, Pauciello's seems a recession-proof pocket. It's part of a strip shopping center where two vacancies remind a visitor of the continuing hard times in commercial real estate, due in part to retail's struggles.

Based on what she's heard from customers, Pauciello said, backyard birding actually has served as a salve to the economy's abrasive ways.

"This is a stress relief for them," she said. "And they can do it in their homes. You don't have to use gas or pay admission."

As though on cue, in walked Jamie Stewart, a retired electrical engineer from Ambler.

"To not have a birdy yard would be a real bummer," Stewart said as he stocked up on nyjer seed - a finch favorite.

Every five years, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a survey that assesses participation in a number of wildlife-related activities, including birding. In the most recent survey, conducted in 2006, feeding wild birds within a mile of home accounted for the highest number: 53.4 million, or 79 percent of all around-the-house wildlife participants.

The study also found that recreationists bought a total of $23.2 billion worth of equipment for wildlife-watching in 2006. Of that, $9.9 billion, or 43 percent, was spent on binoculars, cameras, bird food, and special clothing, among other things.

'Economic bottom'

Pauciello sells most of that at the store she co-owns with friend Nina Resavage.

The store also carries gift items such as mugs, earrings, nail files, and night lights. Though she was not willing to disclose sales figures, Pauciello said the more "gifty kind of things" had not been selling as well, the one indication she's seen that public spending is not as it was before the economic collapse of 2008.

That year, Pauciello said, her business had its own "economic bottom," a result not of the stock-market collapse but of a nearly 50 percent increase in the price of bird seed.

Corn farmers were deciding to grow their crops for use in the manufacture of ethanol rather than for bird food. Black-oil sunflower seeds - favored by many birds - were in short supply, too, as those farmers also made the switch to corn.

Rooting for snow

Perhaps not realizing the kinds of returns they had anticipated from the ethanol market, many of those farmers are once again producing for the bird-seed industry, causing prices to begin to return to their pre-2008 crisis levels.

Last winter's harsh weather and the dramatic start to this winter were no concern to Pauciello. Unlike most other business owners, she roots for snowstorms, she says, "because people want to make sure they have enough to feed the birds."

Last summer's dry season helped stunt the growth of a number of natural crops birds like, thus keeping them feasting at the backyard feeders, she said.

That's not something that was happening 18 months ago, when, for reasons still unknown to Pauciello, there was a drastic drop in feeder attendance. Those uncontrollable events worry her more than economic conditions.

"Our business is driven by the birds eating," she said. "If the birds stop eating tomorrow, it won't really matter what the economy is doing."

Watching Wildlife

In 2006, 71 million U.S. residents participated

in wildlife-watching and spent $23.2 billion on equipment. Of those participants, 68 million

did their observing within a mile of home.

Spending

Wildlife-watching equipment, including binoculars, cameras, bird food: $9.9 billion.

Auxiliary equipment, including tents and backpacks: $1.0 billion.

Special equipment, including campers and off-road vehicles:

$12.3 billion.

Total: $23.2 billion.

Activities

For around-home participants, in millions.

Feed wild birds: 53.4

Observe wildlife: 44.5

Feed other

wildlife: 19.2

Photograph

wildlife: 18.8

Visit public areas: 13.3

Maintain natural

areas: 10.2

Maintain plantings: 9.6

SOURCE: U.S. Fish & Wildlife ServiceEndText

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.