Monday, New Jersey Meadowlands Commission Outreach Coordinator Gabrielle Bennett-Meany met with 25 students at Huber Street School to get them involved with a project aimed at bringing tree swallows back to the Meadowlands.
"This is the Atlantic Flyway," explained Bennett-Meany to the children. "There are some species that are missing that we think should be there."
'Secondary cavity nesters'
The project to bring the birds back was taken up by the Secaucus chapter of a club called People to People International (PTPI). Children and their parents are involved in the club, and recently, the club met with some Huber Street students.
Bennett explained to the students that placing birdhouses throughout the Meadowlands makes it more amenable to swallows, because development has removed much of their natural nesting habitat. Swallows are secondary habitat nesters, which means they depend on certain other animals to create a habitat for their nests. In some locations, tree swallows rely greatly on birdhouses.
"It's looking for a hole that's already been made," said Bennett-Meany. "Tree swallows very readily adapt to this little man-made box, which is unusual."
While many birds nest in trees or on the ground, secondary cavity nesters build nests in fences, in houses, or even in holes abandoned by other animals, like squirrels. Development has also caused other species that the swallows rely on for nesting areas, such as woodpeckers, to become more scarce.
Swallows help the environment because they feed on midges, which are small, mosquito-like swarming insects that hover around the water, sometimes completely covering cars, patio furniture, vegetation, windows, and outside walls.
"Having the birds come back to Secaucus will benefit the town," said student Jonathan Mui. "Mosquitoes are freakin' annoying!"
The NJMC employees started placing the birdhouses throughout the district 10 years ago, and have seen an increase in the swallow population.
This year the project has been opened to the public in an effort to involve the Meadowlands community in what is going on in their area. On Feb. 21, the NJMC held a workshop to recruit and prepare volunteers.
It was at this workshop where PTPI Chapter Advisor Cathy Sofjan-Wolf and her son Kevin Williams were inspired to participate.
People to People International
PTPI was founded by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to promote the understanding among people from different cultures through educational and humanitarian activities. Williams, 14, helped found the Secaucus Chapter last September after participating in a summer sports program in Europe with students from different countries.
"He played in tournaments," explained Sofjan-Wolf. "But outside, they're building friendships understanding culture, and doing community service."
The local chapters aim to involve students from a variety of cultures.
"You have students who were born in this country, but their family comes from Hong Kong, Egypt, South America, or other countries," said Sofjan-Wolf.
Sofjan-Wolf said the chapter plans to use this project as part of Global Youth Service Day (April 16-18) which is a requirement of the charter.
"We were looking for something to benefit the community," she said. "My son and I listened to the [Feb. 21] workshop, and understood that it would not only benefit the community but it is something the students and their families can do as a team project, a more interactive kind of project. Also, the kids will be much more aware of the environment surrounding where they live because they'll be going back to see what kind of wildlife lives in the area."
A part of the community
Over the next few weeks, the children will build nine-inch-tall, four-by-four wooden boxes. When they're done, the NJMC will bring the children into Mill Creek to hang the boxes in locations accessible by foot, so they can get to know the eventual inhabitants.
"If we bring these lost animals back to the Meadowlands, it would be fun," said student Diana Botros.
Bennett-Meany said that the birds will immediately inhabit and make themselves at home in the boxes, which means that the children will get the chance to know the birds.
"Swallows are fun to watch because they are acrobatic," said Bennett-Meany. "Most birds will stand on the ground to eat, but swallows will chase the insects."
NJMC staff hangs other boxes at less accessible areas of the swamp using canoes.
Next year, the NJMC will use boxes that have hinged tops so the environmentalists can tag and monitor the birds' behavior. The closest monitoring stations are in Virginia and Ithaca, N.Y.