Students build homes for the birds
Maddy Devine knows a lot about American Kestrels.
Deemed the class resident expert on the bird, Devine knows the habitiat for the bird population is disappearing.
Another fact she knows is the bird's alias.
"They used to call it the sparrow hawk," Devine said of the small bird.
Devine is among the 45 second grade students at Seven Generations Charter School, Emmaus, to take to heart the plight of the birds. The students decided to address the birds' dwindling numbers by building nesting boxes for the birds to use in the coming months.
Earlier this month the students and their teachers hiked to a site in Emmaus borough to install one of the finished nesting boxes in a location not far from the school so students, including Devine, can keep an eye on the progress of their project.
"This is the first and only time we've done this," Louise Moyer, one of three second grade teachers at Seven Generations Charter School, said of the project. "We were learning along with you," Moyer told students.
The project began at the start of the school year when students started studying forests. Students learned about American Kestrels as predators of pests, including rodents, plaguing farms.
As farmland has been developed and nearby forest areas have disappeared, the American Kestrel population has dwindled. The forests provided nesting for the birds.
The students decided to help restore the local population of the American Kestrel by building nesting boxes. The effort by the second grade students involved fundraising, accepting a gift of several existing nesting box units, recruiting farmers and Emmaus borough officials as recipients of the boxes, and, finally, helping install a nesting box near the school.
The students raised "exactly" $700 through a bake sale and pizza fundraiser, an idea they came up with on their own, Moyer said. Money raised funded the purchase of bird box kits from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton. Students built the boxes, adding to four existing units given to the second grade by the fourth grade, Dhalin Allport, a second grade student, explained. The final count was 18 nesting boxes.
Nesting box construction involved fastening the parts together with screws. Students built the boxes in a school assembly where parent volunteers and teachers supervised and helped students.
Finished boxes were accepted by Emmaus borough officials, the Penn State Extension program and several local farms, including farms in Zionsville, Coopersburg, Quakertown, Easton and Emmaus.
Lindsey Parks, executive director of The Seed Farm, said two boxes will be installed at The Seed Farm site in Upper Milford Township; one on a barn near a two-acre garden on the multi-acre property and one mounted on a tree.
"Hopefully, this will be a project that is ongoing," Parks said. The Seed Farm staff have long wanted to expand educational efforts into the community and view the nesting box project with Seven Generations Charter School as an opportunity to do so.
The American Kestrel, or sparrow hawk, once was abundant in the southern and northeastern United States. In the 19th century, John James Audubon, the famous bird enthusiast and illustrator, wrote about the American Kestrel in his book "Ornithological Biography," describing the birds as "abundant" and "found in every district from Louisiana to Maine, as well as from the Atlantic shores to the western regions."
The birds were everywhere. In his book Audubon writes about briefly keeping an American Kestrel as a pet. The bird would shelter and sleep behind a shutter at Audubon's home and fly out to prey on grasshoppers, mice and other pests found on farms and in gardens.
"They are a farmer's friend," Parks said of the bird.
Devine and her classmates know the bird's reputation as an asset on a farm. The students also know the American Kestrel measures between eight and 10 inches bill to tail; it can fly close to 40 mph; it is the smallest known falcon and it prefers to make its home in existing nests abandoned by other birds, such as the woodpecker, rather than make a new nest, according to Athen Schaper.
"They eat mice, lizards, voles and small birds," Shawn Eckhart said and his classmates nodded in agreement. Eckhart lives near a farm in Zionsville where a nesting box is set to be placed.
The American Kestrel begins nesting in late February. The installation of the Emmaus borough box by the Seven Generations students came just in time. Placed near a field the classes at the school use for play and scientific observation, and not far from plots used for gardens, the installation box also is on the route taken by students during the school-wide fall hike at Seven Generations.
Students will check on the box throughout the school year and also will help maintain it to encourage the birds to use the box and stay in the area.
With luck, the students may see one or more American Kestrels. The birds are marked by black slashes on their faces, colored tail feathers and grey eyes.
On Feb. 12, with snow up to their knees and faces rosy from winter cold, members of the second grade class hiked along the Robert Rodale South Mountain Gateway Trail to install the box. One student made the trek on a sprained ankle but was determined to see her hard work put to use and the box installed. Other students spotted tracks along the way, tested the strength of the ice covered snow and generally enjoyed a trek outdoors during the school day.
"That was good exercise," said one slightly breathless hiker upon returning to school and removing outdoor gear.
"We did it. We made it happen," Quinn McHugh, a student hiker, said after the box was in place.
A service learning project might become an annual effort, Moyer said, depending upon what issues may grab the attention of students. Second grade students are currently studying the pervasivness of palm oil in such consumer products as soaps as part of a unit on natural resources. Right now, the project on the American Kestrel seems a success.
The best part of the project for second grader Rayn Hoch?
"Probably everything," she said.
Seven Generations Charter School follows an environmental focus in its curriculum.