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College NOW project recognized by Illinois senator and governor

June 7, 2017

When your class project is recognized by the governor and given a resolution in the state senate, you know you’ve done something significant.

Thanks to Heartland College NOW instructor Paul Ritter and his Environmental Earth students at Pontiac Township High School (PTHS), May 4, 2017 is designated as Bluebird Project Day. The resolution recognizes the work of Ritter, his students and other schools within Livingston County for their efforts to bring the eastern bluebird back to its native Illinois habitat.

The Beginning

Located in Livingston County, the town of Chatsworth has strong ties to the bluebird and community members were interested in finding ways to bring the species back to the area. The county also serves as an historic home range of bluebirds, likely due to its rural country landscape which is ideal for nesting. According to Ritter, the species is particular about where they choose to nest. “They prefer hedge rows and fence rows as well as scattered trees. As people removed these things or changed the landscape, the bluebird left.” 

Chatsworth enlisted the help of Ritter’s Heartland College NOW students, who then recruited other students from Life Skills classes at PTHS and Prairie Central High School as well as national honor society students from Tri-Point High School.

After conducting a feasibility study in 2015 to determine the bird’s breeding cycle and overall needs, the class and members of the community established 156 bluebird houses in the Chatsworth area. The project grew to include multiple schools within the area which helped double the amount of houses to more than 300. The goal of implementing houses is to not only attract the bluebird, but successfully breed and rear bluebird chicks.

State-wide Recognition

The project inspired an annual community celebration to welcome the bluebird home in the spring and also got the attention of Illinois state senator Jason Barickman, who helped put the senate resolution in place.

“It’s always impressive when young people take on the task of improving their own communities,” Barickman said. “The bluebird houses are great additions to the area both for aesthetic and environmental reasons. We need to recognize and encourage these future leaders and their hard work. I believe a senate resolution will help spread the story of their projects and potentially inspire others to take on similar projects.”

Making a Difference

Ritter calls the bluebird project “interdisciplinary engagement at all levels.” In addition to having scientific facets, the project had a strong aspect of civic engagement with students presenting their findings to community leaders at the local level and eventually, state level. There was also a sales component. Students had to convince community members to not only see value in the project, but purchase houses (a $25 value) and serve as bluebird hosts.

“There were so many lessons to be had,” said Ritter. “It’s been an exciting opportunity for students and for me as I watched them interact with the community and local and state government.”

Ritter hopes to maintain and eventually expand the project within Livingston County. He’s also open to “flocking the entire state with bluebird houses” and involving more students in the process.

“There’s no substitute for hands-on learning,” Ritter said. “Students form lasting memories when they are engaged and changing the world. It might be a small change, but it’s theirs to claim. When given the opportunity, students can make a big difference.”

    • Houses should be mounted on a line of trees or fences where climbing mammals are not present. Rural country with scattered trees is the best habitat.
    • Urban areas are generally not attractive to bluebirds.
    • The house should be placed at least 100 yards to 300 yards away from one another to ward of competition.
    • Hosts should not observe nesting more than once a week. Development issues may occur with too much contact.
    • Nests should be kept very clean to encourage nesting.
    • Keep boxes away from predators and repair any damages (bluebirds will not nest in a damaged house).
    • Remove any unwanted species living in the house. Squirrels, wrens and sparrows are all possible.
    • Feeders should be in good working condition and full. Be mindful that feeders may attract competitive species.
    • To achieve maximum nesting rates it is suggested that homes are placed in a semi grassland area are with scattered trees and short ground cover for easy prey visibility.
    • Large open meadows are not preferred and will discourage nesting.
    • To have nesting longevity, it is advised to install predator guard to deter invasions.
    • Planting native shrubs and trees around the nesting sites will encourage winter feeding.
    • Nesting is not always guaranteed in the first year of establishment.

Written by: Becky Gropp