"When my ninth graders decided to increase the diversity of life on our school site, they were particularly interested in attracting birds, since we were participating in Cornell's Project FeederWatch," reports Hyrum, UT, teacher Ron Helstern.
When they first inventoried their site, students found no live birds -- just one dead western meadowlark. To learn more about bird habitat needs, the class set up research teams and visited a local Audubon center. Each student next inventoried a 3-meter by 3-meter plot to determine what plants grew naturally on the school site. "Because the plots were so big, I had students identify and count plants in square-meter sections, then estimate the number of each plant species in the full plot," says Paul.
With a better understanding of what the site contained and what birds require, students created a landscape plan. They then approached nurseries and discount stores for late-season plant donations, saved seeds from annuals and perennials to grow in the classroom, and secured EPA grant funds to purchase trees, feeders, and other features. Chokecherries, apricots, honeysuckle, wild roses, sunflowers, and raspberries are some of the species the bird-friendly site now boasts. "It's amazing to see teenagers, who typically think the universe revolves around them, so inspired by the dozens of bird species (and other forms of wildlife) that visit our site," says Paul. "They love being able to identify them by sight and sound, and are genuinely eager to learn more about the habitat problems these creatures face," he adds.
Like other animals, birds need food, water, shelter, and safe places to rear their young. A diversity of plant types -- trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, and so on -- can help feed, shelter, and protect a wide range of avian visitors. Seed-eaters such as goldfinches like sunflowers and sun-loving perennials: purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, and thistle. Hummingbirds thrive on bright nectar-producing flowers: aloe, bee balm, butterfly bush, columbine, cardinal flower, honeysuckle, and sage. Shrubs and trees with berries, fruits, nuts, or sap, such as Russian olive, raspberry, blueberry, pecan, and oak, are another key food source. Be sure to include some plants, like highbush cranberry, that hold onto their fruits through the winter. And grasses and legumes left unmowed can provide seeds and cover for ground nesters.
If you include bird feeders, place them where students can observe them, but don't put them in heavily trafficked areas. By placing feeders within 15 feet of trees, you'll also provide a safe retreat.
When the idea of creating a "garden for the birds" inspired Columbia, SC, teacher Arlene Marturano's sixth graders, a local environmental center gave them space to do so.
After brainstorming components of a bird garden habitat -- food, shelter, water, and nesting material -- the class split into investigative teams. The team charged with providing food for the birds researched, then chose plants that would produce avian seed and fruit feasts. These included sunflowers, millet, corn, thistle, calendula, cosmos, strawberries, and holly. Another group learned about nectar-producing plants that would entice hummingbirds. A shelter group discovered that they could provide housing by growing birdhouse gourds, creating a brush pile, and building birdhouses. Once the teams had researched different design, construction, and plant selection problems they encountered, they worked together to create a bird-friendly garden design.
Armed with donated plants and seeds, the kids created a bird-friendly environment, says Arlene. Volunteer carpenters built a kid-sized, walk-in birdhouse, which the students brought to life with paintings of flowers, bees, and other garden elements. The kids created a brochure that explained bird habitat needs and how different plants were important to bird survival, then placed copies in the oversized birdhouse to inform visitors.