A big part of running your schoolyard ecology centre is maintenance. You can't just stick a few plants in the ground and a nest box or two in the trees and hope for the best! Besides cleaning and repairing nest boxes and feeders, you will need to keep a close eye on every corner of your schoolyard centre.
Do a quick tour of the property every few days. Branches may need to be pruned (and added to a brush pile hideout], dead plants replaced, or weeds pulled out. In dry spells you'll need to water your plants. Birdbaths must be kept full of fresh water, and a compost heap will need some attention almost every day.
You may have to protect your carefully placed plants from pests that could harm them. If too many insects find their way into your centre, for example, and you leave them be, they'll take right over; your greenery will become a home for insects, not for the other animals you hoped to attract. If they reproduce in great numbers, these little creatures may even destroy your plants.
There are safe ways to keep green things healthy. Rather than using chemical pesticides, pick off infested leaves by hand. This will help control infestations of pests like lilac leaf miner, leaf rollers and spruce budworm.
In the late fall or early spring, prune off branches containing the grayish egg bands of forest tent caterpillars. Scrape egg bands off limbs too large to prune. If they have hatched, pick off the larvae when they cluster together on cool days.
Blast insects from trees and shrubs with a garden hose. This works well on spider mites and pear slugs, as well as other tiny critters.
Don't forget, often nature provides its own pest control in the form of birds or insects that devour the species we consider nuisances.
Plant marigolds, chrysanthemums, chives, onions, basil, savory or mint amongst your garden plants. Their natural odours and root secretions smell revolting to some insects!
Reappraise your Master Plan each year. There may be projects that you'll want to redesign or even drop from your ecology centre, depending on results or new information you dig up.
Remember, now that you are committed to sustainable development, you have become a caretaker of your ecosystem. It's not a one-shot deal. It's rather like getting a pup of your own. If you want to have it for a long time, you must be a responsible owner.
So, your schoolyard, your particular ecosystem and your planet are no different. You must look after them carefully for best results.
Be a Concerned Manager
Building nest boxes for birds and small mammals is a popular habitat project last year, but they must be properly maintained in order to last many years and be safe for critters. A nest box project is a super way to learn about wildlife management and practise responsible environmental citizenship.
Nest boxes would be very welcome to species disappearing from your area because of habitat loss. Call your district wildlife officer, and ask what kind of box is best. You'll be helping local wildlife and giving district managers a hand as well.
Home, Sweet Bird Home
Did you know that many Canadian bird species love to nest in natural cavities, such as holes in decayed trees or stumps? But it's getting harder for them to find such spots. Many of these trees are cut for firewood or blow down in storms. You can help homeless birds by putting up nest boxes around your schoolyard ecology centre.
A cosy home for a bird family can be easy to make. If you use leftover lumber, it can be cheap, too. Build the box with a removable roof or side. Then you can clean the house thoroughly every year to get rid of pesky parasites which can bug birds. Too many parasites can actually weaken and kill baby birds.
Don't attach a platform or perch outside the box. This makes it too easy for enemies to raid the nest or tempts young birds to venture out of the box before they can fly.
Starlings and sparrows nest early and often hog boxes intended for other birds. So, many birds that enjoy cavity nesting are shrinking in numbers. Cover the entrances until the birds you hope to attract are ready to nest.
Make sure your box is a comfortable, dry home. Drill a few small holes on the sides near the top of the box, just below the roof overhang. That will allow air and a little light to filter in. A few holes drilled in the floor, near the walls, will let moisture drain out.
You can attract different species of birds depending on the size of the box and where you put it. It's most important to make the entrance hole the correct size for each species. So, to attract wrens, don't make the front door any bigger than 2.5 centimetres in diameter. Otherwise, sparrows may move in!
A box will more likely be used if it is placed on a pole or hung against a tree trunk or from a branch with a hook screwed into the roof of the box. Discourage unwanted visitors by putting a guard around the trunk such as a collar of tin. Pick a spot that is sunny at least part of the day. Turn the entrance away from the usual direction of wind and rain — the birds don't want a storm in their living-room!
If you want to relocate houses or feeders, fall is a good time to do it. You may want to add a few new ones or move old ones to better spots.
Tips about Materials
- Use any wood that resists weathering. Softwoods, particularly pines, are easy to work with. Avoid hardwoods, poplar and basswood, as they have poor resistance to weather. Lumber stock less than three centimetres will do. Create a natural log effect by using bits and pieces of wood with bark still attached. These slabs are less expensive and can be found in most sawmills and lumber yards.
- Boxes made of dressed lumber must be stained with waterproof varnish to last many seasons. If you paint your boxes, birds are most likely to be attracted to subdued brown, tan or grey.
- To darken and preserve new pine boxes, mix a little green or brown oil-based paint with linseed oil. Don't use lead-based alkyd paints or creosotes, and don't treat the interior of the box with preservatives.
- Five-centimetre (two-inch) coated nails are best. Your box will last longer if sections are glued together with bond fast glue in addition to being nailed.
- Don't put nesting material in the boxes — your feathered friends would much rather bring their own! But you can help out by leaving short bits of string and yarn (so birds can't accidentally get tangled up), hair and chicken feathers in small heaps on the ground or in tree branches.
Besides cleaning your bird houses, make sure the boxes are in good repair.
- Check to see how securely your boxes are mounted. Be sure the first heavy rain or wind storm won't blow them down. An accident like that could wreck the house, kill baby birds or make scrambled eggs!
- If the roof is loose, the bottom warped, or a side cracked, take it down for complete repairs. If it needs paint or stain, fall is the time to do it. Return the box to its place outside so it can weather all winter. When spring comes, the smell of the paint or stain will have worn off.
Clean up your nest box each fall. You will be getting rid of parasites and leaving a spotless house for next spring's family.
For species like bluebirds and robins that sometimes nest twice in a summer, clean house in between broods. Removing the first nest keeps adults from building a new nest on top of it. A nest raised dangerously close to the entrance hole will make chicks easier prey for starlings or raccoons.
Nests left in nest boxes over the winter will probably attract mice; they love to burrow in boxes stuffed with grass and other vegetation. Needless to say, birds are not likely to use these boxes!
Start cleaning house at the end of the season, when the birds have gone south. Have an adult help you. Scrub your box with a stiff brush. Disinfect it by spraying the inside with pyrethrum insecticide containing 0.5 per cent pyrethrin. This insecticide was originally made from dried chrysanthemums; now it is artificially made. It is very toxic to insects, but it will not harm birds. Its effects do not last long, which makes it safer for use in nature.
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