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“Unexpected intrusions of beauty. This is what life is.”  (Saul Bellow (1915- 2005) Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning novelist)

Normally they prefer a safer eating perch, but this young Meisli was prepared to pose for an easier photo

If you’d told me, during my corporate or business lives, that I’d be happy to spend an hour lying in a deckchair and watching birds, I’d have looked at you very strangely.  But then, I hadn’t met the Meisli.  (And yes, then I didn’t have the hour – or the deckchair.)

Let me introduce you.   The Meisli we see most in our garden is the one that’s called the Great Tit in England, and the Kohlmeise in German.   (Lesson One in Swiss-German: add “–li” as a diminutive to almost any German noun and you’ll sound quite local.)

It’s a very smart bird – both in appearance and intelligence.  In fact, the first time I met the Meisli-tribe was in an article on Organisational Learning (more below) which used the story of how Tits had learned to pierce British milk bottle tops to get to the cream beneath.  Their discovery, and the way the whole flock quickly learned from the innovators, was used as an example of what needs to happen in companies.

Clever, I thought at the time, never thinking I’d get up close and personal with them.  And VERY clever, the way they’ve trained us to provide sunflower seeds on demand.

At the bird-feeder.

There’s a feeder in the garden, hanging from the gingko tree.

Young bird still learning how to access the seeds. The newspaper on top is an attempt to discourage the sparrows. That didn’t work – they’re also quick learners.

But if that’s empty, they’ll hop onto the table while we’re having a long chess-playing lunch  and look enquiringly at us.

“I knew there’d be a sunflower seed here somewhere”

Or if we’re in the deck-chairs, they’ll cling to a sandal and peck away at that tender skin under the toe-nail.  To us, that’s attention-getting behaviour.  To the Meisli, it’s probably that a toenail looks like a nice piece of bark which should have an insect underneath.

The power of that peck is amazing!

Perched with seed ready for attack

They apparently can hack their way into a hazel-nut with about 20 minutes persistence, so they make short work of the sunflower seeds we provide.

Their technique is well-practised.  Grab a seed.  Find a claw-sized branch. Perch with the seed positioned between your feet. Hack away till you’re into it.  I’ve been watching the young go from having seeds popped into their mouths by the parent birds, to using that quite sophisticated technique, without missing a beat.

They’re smart-looking too. With a black cap, white collar, primrose waistcoat, and pin-striped grey tail-coat they’d pass at a society wedding.    Some have a bolder black stripe down their fronts.  In Meisli society, that flashes a signal of a sexier male.

The Blau Meisli (Blue tit) is here sometimes too

Young Blau Meisli with a grub. Note the punk topknot.

– more often in spring and autumn when an easy source of food matters enough to contest the territory with their larger cousins.

The little blues are not as dapper –  they’ve rather more a rakish look, with their punk blue topknot and Zorro bandit eye-masks.  I smile every time I see them.

Blau Meisli – topknot unusually well-groomed!

Another thing we could learn from the Meisli  – eat fat only when your body needs it.

Three meisli collaborate over a feed of fat from speck rind

When we’ve bought a lump of of speck or schinken, we’ll cut off the skin with its layer of fat, and hang that in the tree.  In autumn, when they know they need to fatten up for the winter, the Meisli will mob the strip, and eat it down to the rind.   In summer, it’s just an occasional snack.

Of course in those deck-chair bird-watching hours, I do sometimes examine my conscience.  In enjoying the company of the birds and enticing them to hang around for a free lunch, are we doing them a favour?  When suddenly in October their meal-ticket itself migrates, do they go into winter in better condition because they’ve eaten so well, or in worse condition because we’ve reduced their wild-foraging skills?  When they have another brood of chicks because food is plentiful, does that increase the population that survives winter, or set up a group that’s likely not to make it, because later-brood chicks are generally less robust?

Then a Meisli attacks my toenail, and my worries fly off.

Learning Lessons from the Meisli

(as developed from “The Living Company” by Arie de Geus. I originally read this as an article in the Harvard Business Review (1977). His similarly titled book is one of those “required reading” books on organisational learning.)

Meisli are social birds. They quickly pass new behaviours on through the flock.  So the lessons for us are

Innovate, as individuals or as a community

Propagate the information.   Have established processes for transmitting skills from individual to company or community.

Be mobile.  Individual birds move around within “communities” rather than settling in isolated territories. Similarly, the more we interact and exchange ideas, the more we build on our learning.


The greenfinch also loves sunflower seeds, but hasn’t learned to use the bird-feeder
Fortunately for the greenfinch, Maria’s sunflower seeds are available au natural just over the driveway.