Beyond biology: ‘Project Bluebird’ provides lessons in conservation, carpentry


Ann Arbor bird expert Dea Armstrong checks out a nest with a Skyline student.

By Tara Cavanaugh

On an unseasonably warm day last month, as the sun beamed from a cloudless sky, eight Skyline students trekked to the ponds outside their school. Their goal was to see if their bluebird houses had attracted any inhabitants yet. Lucky for them, one house was occupied.

The students eagerly gathered around the house to peer into the nest. It was an exciting development in the project that they’d been working on for weeks.

The project, the first of its kind for the Consumers Math and Life Skills students,  provides lessons in biology, conservation, carpentry, math and data analysis.

“Some of the science standards are graphing data and charting data, and I thought this would be a neat way to attack one of the missions of the school–conservation–as well as do some hands-on work with a cool project,” said Peter Pasque, an instructional technology teacher. He brought the idea to Aaron Lopez, a teacher in the Consumers Math and Life Skills program.

Lopez and Pasque aided the students in assembling the birdhouses in a Skyline design lab earlier this winter.

“Before we started construction, we learned the units of measurement,” Lopez said. “Learning the fractions on a ruler and being able to apply that to measure lines. They were able to apply those rules to constructing the houses.”

Students also learned about construction safety and took a skills test before operating the power tools, “to make sure everyone left with what they came in with,” Pasque said.

The students also learned about bluebirds from a bird expert. Deaver D. Armstrong, Ann Arbor’s city ornithologist, visited the class and went outside with them to check out the houses, commending them on their conservation efforts.

“(Bluebirds) would normally find a home in a tree, in a cavity made by a woodpecker,” she said. “Because there are fewer trees, you’re providing them a lot of help.”

Although it was exciting to find a nest in the first house, Armstrong wasn’t sure if it was a bluebird nest or if it was a house sparrow nest. House sparrows, which are an invasive species, are so aggressive that they kill bluebirds.

In the second house, students found a nest that Armstrong was certain a house sparrow’s nest, a messy compilation of feathers and rubbish. She recommended to Lopez and Pasque that the nest be moved far away from the birdhouse. “It’s disappointing,” she said, “but (house sparrows) don’t need any help. They’re doing fine.”

As the students surveyed the third and fourth birdhouses, a tree swallow took flight, soaring in circles around the pond, its white belly gleaming in the sun.

“This has everything your tree swallow wants,” Armstrong said, “a cavity for nesting, a pond for bugs to hatch out of. This tree swallow likes this nest box right here. This bird is really interested.” There was no sign of a nest in either house yet, but Armstrong told students to be on the lookout for a tree swallow nest soon.

Now the students are tabulating data, recording how the houses are used at least once a week and inputting that information into an online computer spreadsheet that updates in real time and writing about their experiences on a blog.

The results are available at the class project’s website and will also be sent to Cornell University’s Nest Watch project, which encourages students to collect data about local birds.

Whether students were looking at nests or building the birdhouses, “the students are really enjoying it,” Lopez said. “Anything hands-on, they really enjoy.”

The data tabulation won’t end with this school year, Pasque said. Future classes will keep maintaining and monitoring the birdhouses.

See Peter Pasque’s photos of the students creating and posting the birdhouses here, and view the Project Bluebird website here.

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1 Comment

  1. The Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation is proud to provide funding support to this project. When Mr. Lopez was presented with the award in his classroom, his students were thrilled for him and were looking forward to building the bird houses. So glad to see the project is progressing so well.

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