A curious Tufted Titmouse peeks into the arch of the doorway. Is it too late for the open house?
Impeccable timing, actually. The snacks were just served: a smattering of delicious black sunflower seed, bought in bulk. It’s the kind of bounty that draws a crowd . . . one with feathers, wings, and a steady toe grip. After the titmouse, a White-breasted Nuthatch stops by. Later in the day, a family of American Goldfinches troops in.
The visits are brisk and business-like, but Jada Fitch is satisfied. Such guests were exactly what she'd hoped for when she first attached the homemade, dollhouse-like bird feeder to the window of her house in Portland, Maine. Fitch, a wildlife artist and children's book illustrator by trade, has been an avid birder for years. Over time the two passions became intertwined: In college, she tried to draw every bird species in North America in alphabetical order (she got up to Chuck-will’s-widow before life took over). More recently, she’s collaborated with the Maine Audubon Society and other local nature organizations, such as the Eastern Trail Alliance and Wild Seed Project, to paint “infomurals.”
Fitch first came up with the concept of tiny, furnished bird feeders in 2015 while taking a creative break during a longer drawing assignment. It took her a weekend to put it all together.
“I had the idea to make a little diorama to put in my window for the birds to land in, so I could get some close-up pictures,” Fitch says. “Both of my feeders are directly in front of my desk, so I see them come and go all day.”
The construction process for the first house was simple: Fitch took a cardboard box, measured the interior “walls,” and cut paper accessories to size for gluing down after the paint job dried. She carved out a door and windows, and attached a little porch on the front of the structure to act as a perch. She then added the interior décor: painted throw rugs, framed “portraits” of bird family members, and cardboard couches and armchairs, creating a whimsical living room in the process. Lastly and most importantly, she scattered seed across the furniture and floor and Duct taped the house to her window.
The end result resembled a scene out of a Wes Anderson movie—or one of Fitch’s illustrated books, which often feature adventurous animals living in human-like spaces. All she had to do now was sit back, camera ready, and wait for her new visitors. The early birds were skeptical, she says, but their misgivings helped her perfect her design. “The first few [individuals] that came into the house wouldn’t come all the way in,” Fitch says. “They’d just sort of poke their head in and peck at feed. I think that was partially due to the rectangular door. When I made the ‘hobbit house’ with the round door, they seemed to go in a lot more willingly.”
Once the wing traffic picked up, Fitch started posting regular updates on her blog and Instagram. Her primary guests were species native to Maine: Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, and American Goldfinches.
As her online following grew, she experimented with themes, including a Halloween one and another she dubbed “The Original,” which was dedicated to the state bird of Maine, the Black-capped Chickadee.
Soon, people were asking about adding Fitch’s creations to their own backyards. With help from her husband, Fitch designed a series of feeders called “Home Tweet Home,” a mini, bird-friendly version of the house the couple lives in, and put it up for purchase on her website. The easy-to-assemble kits sold out in just four hours.
But fans wanted more. To meet the high demand, the artist is now working on a second line of “Home Tweet Home” kits priced at $12. “My husband and I are making them as fast as we can,” Fitch says. They plan to stock 80 of the fully furnished sets on the website, plus in Maine Audubon shops and local outfitters, by spring.
Because the first “Home Tweet Homes” were made out of recycled cardboard, they couldn't be permanently left outside in the elements. The latest version will be waterproof, Fitch says, and should be impermeable to rain and snow. The primary material is coroplast, a nontoxic, corrugated plastic that’s often used for lawn campaign signs. The watercolors she’s using are also safe for wildlife.
Fitch’s early focus groups led her to make some architectural changes as well. “I put a few more perches on the outside and made the overhang—the lip—a little bit bigger so I could fit some more feed on there,” she says. After all, it’s the tasty food, not the tasteful décor, that keeps the birds coming back for more.