June 2009
Featured Articles

Is New Extension Program “For The Birds”?


Jerry Chenault is building a nest box for one of our most popular native songbirds, the Eastern Bluebird, as part of a STAR program.


"Friday afternoons are for the birds!" That’s what retired Morgan County Extension Agent Harry Houston used to say when asked about his Friday afternoon plans. Harry really was an exemplary Extension agent; but this quote (which he used quite often) reminds me of a new program being promoted by the S.T.A.R. project of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. But is it really "for the birds"?

The STAR project is a branch of the Urban Affairs & New Nontraditional Programs division, and its team members are working to help Alabama’s citizens. "STAR" actually stands for "Saving Towns Thru Asset Revitalization"...and we begin saving towns by helping the town’s people! We know Alabama’s people are some of the most hefty, most un-healthy and are probably just as stressed out as other citizens of our country. Most of our people spend too much time indoors, too much time watching television and way too little time being physically active outdoors in nature. By the way, working in nature isn’t exactly the answer either.

"The cutting-edge in research shows many of our citizens exhibit what is now known in the literature as ‘nature deficit disorder’," said STAR project coordinator Marilyn S. Johnson. "Our program focuses on the human dimensions of urban forestry, and what we are doing with STAR is extending university research to our residents – to help them to live healthier, more serene lives through inter-generational activities in nature."

What it all boils down to is people in today’s world live in a fast-paced, noisy environment...an environment with too many stimulants, too much concrete, too little physical activity, too little nutrients, too much sugar and fat, and too little of the peace and serenity that comes from being involved with plants, greenery and nature. We’re trying to do something about that through educational programming.

Part of that programming includes building nest boxes for one of our most popular native songbirds, the Eastern Bluebird. These birds could sure use our help in not only finding appropriate housing, but also in maintaining that housing. You see, the Eastern Bluebird will not use a nest box that is dirty or been used by another bird; therefore, their boxes must be monitored and cleaned out during the summer after the young birds leave. This allows re-nesting to occur.

The nest materials of the last brood of the summer should be left in the box to provide better insulation for birds who take shelter in the box on cold winter nights. In February of the following year, the box should be cleaned out and repaired for the new nesting season.

One of the reasons the Eastern Bluebird is so dearly loved is because of their brilliant blue color and their delightful songs. Besides that, bluebirds eat lots of insects! But how, other than reducing insect populations, can helping bluebirds help us? Remember – I asked, is it really for the birds?

Actually, helping the bluebirds is a win/win situation. Just ask Urban Regional Extension Agent Roosevelt Robinson in Mobile. Roosevelt is a STAR team member who has coordinated the construction, mounting and on-going weekly monitoring of over 100 bluebird houses in his "Songbird Recovery Project" for that area.

What Roosevelt knows is observing and listening to native songbirds gives humans hours of pleasure...and exercise...and the whole process helps to make up for all those hours we spend dealing with cars in traffic, noise, hectic schedules, concrete, crowds, stress, etc.

The real question is – who gets the most benefit, us or the birds? You decide.

Jerry A. Chenault is with the Urban R.E.A., New & Nontraditional Programs.