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Ophir students build birdhouses with local volunteers

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Seventh-grade students in Mr. Harder’s design technology class proudly holds their finished birdhouses. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON


BIG SKY—Jeremy Harder’s seventh-grade Design Technology class at Ophir Middle School took a short walk from campus to Roger Ladd’s barn on March 8 for a unique, out-of-the-classroom activity: building birdhouses. Ladd and Harder have teamed up on the project for two years, making cedar birdhouses that provide nesting places for both local and migratory songbirds in the area.

Songbirds rely largely on shrublands and sagebrush for their habitat. Development, agriculture and fire have resulted in these landscapes shrinking across the West over the past 30-40 years, according to reports from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Songbird populations are struggling as a result.

“Some of these birds who migrate, specifically the tree swallow and the mountain bluebirds, they’ll be coming back into town in the next couple of months,” Harder said. “When the breeding season comes, hopefully they’ll take advantage of our birdhouses.”

Ladd and Grayson Timon, owner and operator of Timon Development LLC, assembled the birdhouse bases before students came to work on them. Students used power tools to add removable roofs to houses—a feature Ladd explained lets students peek inside to check on the birds inside—air holes for ventilation, and a few other final touches.

“It’s a fun way to get out of the classroom and for students to put real life skills into an authentic project,” Harder said. “It’s practice in problem solving and learning how to use household tools.”

The birds are partial to cedar wood, Harder explained, which is more expensive than other wood like pine. Simkins-Hallin, Inc., a building material supplier based in Bozeman, donated enough wood for this year’s project and for a class to do it again next year. That much wood costs about $800, according to Ladd’s estimation. He provides the rest of the materials.

Ella Smith was the fastest birdhouse builder of the bunch. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON

According to student Ella Smith, making the birdhouses is “way more fun than being in the classroom.” She explained that the class did research about the birds that are likely to use their house before starting the construction project.

The birdhouses will go home with students after they’re complete. Depending on the specifications of their parents’ yard and parental permission, Harder hopes the birdhouses will go up at the students’ homes where they can see birds use them. For students who can’t set up the birdhouse in their own yard, Harder hopes to find ways for the houses to be given to other members of the community or placed near local trails.

Ladd has four of the birdhouses set up on his property and recalls opening the lids to see four different species of songbirds—a tree swallow, a mountain bluebird, a black-capped chickadee and a white-breasted nuthatch—inside.

Harder, who has been teaching at the Big Sky School District for over 20 years, is known for his unconventional lesson plans. From taking fourth graders to Yellowstone National Park for a week to incorporating new technology into students’ repertoires, it seems he’s always exploring new ways to teach lessons outside of the classroom. As the middle schoolers followed him back to the school, birdhouses in-hand, it was clear the students resonated with the project.

The class presented Roger Ladd with a thank you card that featured a bluebird. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON

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