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Ophir Middle School eighth graders show off their completed birdhouses. PHOTO BY TUCKER HARRIS

Middle School students, Big Sky homeowner, construction owner build birdhouses for community

By Tucker Harris Digital Producer

BIG SKY – On a cool, overcast spring day in May, more than 30 Ophir Middle School eighth-grade students crowd around a wood-working table under a garage awning. Their technology teacher, Jeremy Harder, motions for them to quiet down before Roger Ladd explains the project for the day: constructing wooden birdhouses. 

Ladd, local Big Sky homeowner, and Grayson Timon, owner and operator of Timon Development LLC, have spent the past two weeks building out the majority of 50 birdhouses: cutting the wood into shape, drilling holes for screws and placing hooks for easy opening and closing. 

Harder’s eighth-grade design technology class has come to Ladd’s home workshop in Gallatin Gateway to add the final touches: screwing the wood pieces together, adding hinges to connect the lid to the rest of the birdhouse, and affixing copper protective portals around what will be the birds’ entry hole.

Student Stella Haas is adding the final touch to her birdhouse: attaching a hinge to the opening. 

“I’m learning how to use my engineering and mechanical skills to apply them to real life experiences,” she said as she drills in the final screw and completes her birdhouse.

The design technology course offers career-centered skills and curriculum focusing on projects from computer-aided design to sowing beanbags together and learning how to do a basic stitch. Today, they will use electric drills to create birdhouses, which students will observe to compile and submit data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

“Technology is certainly not the solution for everything, but perhaps it can accompany the building of and hanging up of the birdhouses,” Harder said. 

Cornell’s lab is known for its citizen science and has been collecting species and location data observations from birder watchers across the country since 2002 for scientific use. As of October 2020, nearly 50 million checklists and 10,511 species of birds had been recorded from these observations, according to the Cornell lab website. 

“For eighth graders, their life is so immediate to what’s in front of them. Giving them opportunities to sort of change that lens, to see a little bit more forward, to make that circle a little bit bigger around them, I think is a win-win for anyone.”

JEREMY HARDER, TECHNOLOGY TEACHER AT OPHIR MIDDLE SCHOOL

Harder plans to bring back more place-based experiential learning to his course, a practice he says has fallen off the curriculum since COVID-19. 

“Learning and collecting data that we can use to look at various species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is really cool and I’m excited to bring that experiential learning back,” said Harder, adding that he hopes the project will hopefully benefit the GYE, but also go beyond the surrounding area by connecting the students to the Cornell lab in New York.

“Doing something for someone or something else is huge to me,” Harder said. “For eighth graders, their life is so immediate to what’s in front of them. Giving them opportunities to sort of change that lens, to see a little bit more forward, to make that circle a little bit bigger around them, I think is a win-win for anyone.”

Ladd echoed the importance of stepping out of the classroom and into the outdoors as a learning environment. 

“I think we can all learn something from nature,” Ladd said. “It’s also just fun to watch the process. That’s why we build these [birdhouses] so you can look inside of them and observe.”

On-site education can make learning practical and give students the opportunity to apply their knowledge in a real-world environment, Harder said. It’s something his student Geno Ditullio noticed as he installed copper guards that will help protect the birds that build nests in the birdhouses. 

“I learned that you use these protection guards so that predators can’t get into the house,” Ditullio said.

Roger Ladd provides instructions to a table of eighth-grade girls assembling their bird houses. PHOTO BY TUCKER HARRIS

Each year, Ladd constructs birdhouses for his grandchildren and neighbors so they can also experience the joy of watching the birds who establish their nests in these hand-built homes.

“My grandkids look in those things all the time to check on the process: see how they’re building the nest; what color eggs and what kind of birds use them … and I don’t think there’s any age that doesn’t enjoy it,” Ladd said. 

This project with Ophir will be Ladd’s largest build to date, and the class assembled 50 birdhouses in the hour of allotted time. 

The birdhouses are built with local birds in mind: barn swallows, bluebirds, nuthatches and mountain chickadees. But competition for the houses isn’t easy. Harder compares the birdhouse “market” to the current housing market in Big Sky: a crisis. 

“The houses are for anyone, but just like our housing crisis around here in Big Sky, while they’re for any species of bird, potentially through natural selection the bluebirds tend to overtake these houses,” Harder said. 

Harder is encouraging students to take their birdhouse home to hang in their yard. The remaining houses will be installed at the school next year once summer construction is completed, according to Harder.

More bird homes mean, well, more birds, Ladd says. Through the birdhouse project, he hopes increased habitat will allow more Big Sky-area birds to build nests and reduce the competition between species.

“We can never have too many birds,” Ladd said.  

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