17 Jun

Gimme Shelter (At The Refuge)

heinz_birdhouseWe are much belated in posting this news, but the first greenSTEM birdhouse was not installed at a school but rather at a wildlife refuge. The John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum has long been one of our favorite green spots in Philadelphia. Easily accessible from I-95 near the airport, it’s a true urban refuge: Even as planes fly overhead and highway traffic blurs in the distance, you’re enveloped in 1,000 acres of freshwater tidal wetland and forested hiking/biking trails. It’s also a birder’s paradise, as hundreds of species of birds can be spotted at the refuge over the course of the year—from migratory shorebirds and raptors to turkeys and cavity nesters such as swallows and sparrows.

When we began building birdhouse prototypes, we met with deputy refuge manager Mariana Bergerson and wildlife biologist Brendalee Phillips to get some design tips, configure a wifi connection to stream nestcam video, and figure out placement. The last part was easy—the refuge’s visitor center has solar panels on its roof, so we put it in the meadow and aimed our solar panel the same way. See photo above—you’ll also notice some perches on the side of the birdhouse and spikes on the roof to prevent birds perching (and subsequently pooping) on the solar panel.

Birds moved in almost immediately. It’s an ongoing saga, but after the jump we begin the story of swallow vs. sparrow.


May 14: About two weeks after we installed the birdhouse, we returned to check on things and noticed a nest and three tree swallow eggs. We had to open the house to adjust some code, but disturbance was minimal and no birds or humans were hurt.

June 2: We returned to the scene of … a crime? The eggs are gone, and swallow feathers litter the ground near the birdhouse. A sparrow is seen removing swallow feathers from the nest. We surmise that sparrows attacked the nest. It feels horrible to think we may have created a nesting spot with inadequate protection from sparrows. There are many strong opinions out there on what to do about house sparrows and their invasive nature. For now, we are species agnostic.

June 10: We expected to find a sparrow had taken over the birdhouse, but to our surprise, another swallow moved in. We captured the video above of the mother and one egg via our nest cam, and we’ll check back soon to see how things are going. Here’s the swallow standing guard:


June 25: We came back to check up on the nest to find only sticks where our tree swallow once stood. The birdhouse had been completely filled with twigs and all signs of life (egg or bird) were absent. We think that the sparrows we were having trouble with before scared the swallow off again and filled the nest in an effort to protect its territory and prevent other birds from nesting there.

unnamedJuly 9: We cleared out the sticks from the birdhouse in hope that another tree swallow would move in.

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