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Montessori students learn how gourds can make ideal birdhouses
GUEST COLUMN

Montessori students learn how gourds can make ideal birdhouses

GUEST COLUMN

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Long ago, American Indians recognized the benefits of attracting purple martin colonies to their villages, and so they would hang natural gourds as nests. So great was their interaction that over multiple generations, purple martins have become “semi-domesticated,” and still prefer to nest in gourds. In the eastern United States, they are almost exclusively dependent on man-made birdhouses.

Purple martins' playful behavior and happy singing provided endless entertainment around the villages, but when predators or strangers approached, these birds were quick to alert the tribe with distinctive alarm calls. American Indians may have used their regular morning song as an alarm clock, and their annual cycle of arrival, egg-laying and departure may have worked as a calendar, helping them keep track of the seasons!

Most importantly, purple martins eat thousands of insects a day, acting as natural bug zappers and bringing much-needed relief on balmy summer nights. Welcome the company of these lovely birds into your yard by hanging a few gourd birdhouses as the Indians did! Making a gourd birdhouse takes a little patience, but can be well worth the time and effort.

The children at Montessori School of the Finger Lakes did just that! We started by planting a traditional three sisters garden in May of 2011. We ordered organic, heirloom American Indian seeds, prepared a garden plot, planted and then let nature do its work!

In September, we harvested the hard-shell gourds once the vine had withered. Be careful to leave the stem attached. Wash the gourd thoroughly in a mixture of water and bleach, then dry with a towel. Hang it in a sunny spot or in the basement near your furnace. If you don't have a place to hang them, put it on newspaper in a warm, dry place for three to six months.

As the gourd dries, it will begin to mold. This is a natural part of the drying process. If dried indoors, it will grow more mold and should be frequently wiped clean with the bleach solution. To check if it is dry, give it a good shake — if the seeds rattle, you can begin making your birdhouse.

Our gourds were ready the first week of June, and we decided to use them for our Father’s Day crafts.

To make the birdhouse, you will need the following items:

  • Hard-shell dried gourd
  • Water
  • Sanding block or sand paper
  • Compass, or circle template
  • Pencil
  • Small hand saw
  • Drill with a small drill bit, and sanding bit
  • Acrylic paint, stain, exterior house paint
  • A paintbrush or a lint-free cloth
  • Brush-on varnish
  • Wire, leather rope or other hanging material

To make the birdhouse, soak the gourd for 15 minutes in hot, soapy water, and then scrape with a dull knife to remove the outer skin and mold. Scrub in the water with fine steel wool. Rinse it well, and allow to dry thoroughly.

The size of the hole on your gourd will depend on the type of bird you want to attract.

Once you have the center marked, take a carpenter's pencil (compass) to outline the entrance hole. The entrance hole can be easily drilled with the proper-sized hole saw, or by using a keyhole saw. Another option is using a 1/4-inch drill bit, and drill a series of holes through the penciled circle. Then finish cutting with a sharp, sturdy, serrated knife.

Wear a face mask, as the dust is a caustic substance. Drill two sets of holes about 2 inches from the neck for hanging and ventilation. Also drill two or three quarter-inch holes in the bottom for drainage. Also, drill a hole through the neck of your birdhouse gourds, so you can run some wire or other material to hang your new creations.

Remove the seeds and membrane of the gourd through the entrance hole with a long-handled metal spoon, screwdriver or wire coat hanger. Sand off any rough edges around the entrance hole.

Lightly sand the gourd smooth and paint with an oil-based primer. Allow it to dry thoroughly. Decorate the birdhouse with exterior enamel paint. Decorate any way you like and hang it in the proper place to attract the birds you want.

To have your gourds last longer, bring them in for the winter, or grow some more next year!

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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and auburnpub.com since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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