A Chattanooga executive turned entrepreneur capitalizes on her love of birds

Contributed photo by Mandy Lamb / Susan Vandergriff, owner of The Happy Birdwatcher, launched her line of no-waste custom birdseed blends in 2021.

Susan Vandergriff had never seen a bluer bird than the one that appeared in her backyard on Easter Sunday.

"It was almost turquoise," she says. "My heart started racing; I was running from window to window." Finally, she managed to ID the visitor: an indigo bunting.

And just like that, Vandergriff was a birder.

She bought binoculars and more feeders - one for each window of her Sequatchie Valley home. She began to learn about the chickadees, titmice and cardinals that she saw yearround, and the rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird and indigo bunting that returned each spring.

"I started thinking, 'How can I attract more?'" says Vandergriff. "I'm nerdy, so I started doing my own research on what different birds like to eat."

The generic seed mixes she bought seemed to create a lot of waste.

"Literally, corn stalks were sprouting under the feeder," she says.

Moreover, she learned that milo, a type of grass grain, is a common filler ingredient used in commercial mixes - even though most backyard birds will not eat it. She mentioned to her husband, Sam Tibbs, the idea of making a better blend for their resident species.

photo Contributed photo by Mandy Lamb / The Happy Birdwatcher's 'Splendid Box' seed package ($72) includes a 10-pound bag of seed, 5-pound bag of specialty seed, 1.5-pound suet cake, 1-pound bag of meal worms and a personalized letter about regional species, plus birdwatching tips.

Tibbs - a birder by default, she says - suggested she scale it up and turn it into a business.

So, in the spring of 2021, Vandergriff left her role as executive director of A Step Ahead Chattanooga and launched The Happy Birdwatcher, a subscription box-based company offering no-waste birdseed blends customized to specific locations across the country.

Each customer is asked to complete a questionnaire about where they live and what types of feeders they use. Then Vandergriff, with the help of her data scientist husband, analyzes that information alongside bird-sighting records and the preferred diets of those species.

Thistle seed, for example, helps attract goldfinch; white millet, ground-feeding birds like towhees and sparrows; and safflower seed is a favorite among grosbeaks - and best of all, squirrels seem to hate it, says Vandergriff.

photo Contributed photo by Mandy Lamb / The main ingredient in all The Happy Birdwatcher blends is premium black oil sunflower seeds, a favorite among almost all species of songbird.

The main ingredient in all The Happy Birdwatcher blends is premium black oil sunflower seeds.

"Hulled, so just the meaty insides," Vandergriff says.

The orders are shipped in recyclable and compostable packaging and each includes a personalized letter detailing the top five birds expected at that customer's feeder that month.

Since its launch, The Happy Birdwatcher has shipped custom blends to 14 different states, from North Carolina to California. For each 10-pound bag sold, Vandergriff donates $1 to a nonprofit that supports men­tal health.

Birding, Vandergriff says, has helped her manage anxiety.

"When you're looking at birds," she says, "it's so easy to think about nothing else."

photo Contributed photo by Mandy Lamb / Other ingredients found in The Happy Birdwatcher custom blends may include thistle seed, white millet and safflower seed, all sourced from an Amish farm and hand-sorted.