By Morgan Spehar
On Nov. 16, a group of 10 students from Ohio University – most of whom were members of the Ohio University Sierra Student Coalition (OUSSC) – joined two Forest Service employees to volunteer at the Peabody Wildlife Opening. They did all kinds of work, everything from cleaning out bird boxes to cutting down Autumn olive (an invasive shrub) to gathering grasses for mallard nest platforms.
The Peabody Wildlife Opening is a wide tallgrass prairie with brown grasses and dried out goldenrod that tower over five feet in height. Short, scraggly pine trees occasionally add a splash of color to the landscape, but other than those few trees, different shades of brown stretch out until they butt up against the equally brown forest.
This type of habitat in Ohio is rare, as development and managed regrowth, where people go in and encourage certain plant growth, disrupts the natural succession in which habitat usually develops. Grasslands and tallgrass prairies belong to a category of ecosystems called “early successional habitats,” which the Natural Resources Conservation Service defines as habitats with grasses, shrubs and trees that need disturbance to be maintained.
The Peabody Wildlife Opening is located on a reclaimed strip mine where there is very little good topsoil, which is why the area hasn’t grown into a forest yet.The Wayne National Forest is keeping the land that way by cutting down bushes and trees that have grown too big so that species, like the bluebird, that rely on the habitat have a place to live.
“The Wayne definitely tries to make a variety of habitats for a variety of animals,” Kyle Brooks, who works for the Forest Service through the Greening Youth Foundation, said, “Obviously not all animals can live in the same places.”
The bird boxes the students emptied of debris primarily house Eastern bluebirds, wrens and tree swallows, all of which rely on early successional habitats for at least part of the year.
Bluebirds in particular appreciate the birdhouses because they are secondary cavity nesters, meaning they must look for pre-made holes to nest in because their beaks are too weak to create holes in wood. Brooks said that the bluebirds usually can depend on woodpeckers to form holes to nest in, but woodpecker populations in Ohio are also on the decline.
Bluebirds are also particular nesters.
“They won’t nest in the boxes next spring if there’s nest material already in them,” he said.
The Forest Service sends volunteers out every year to clean out old nesting material and replace any rotting birdhouses. This can take a lot of volunteer labor, as cutting through sharp prickers and wading through the mud on a cold Saturday morning can be a difficult task, but the OUSSC students don’t mind.
“I like volunteering and I like helping with conservation and wildlife efforts,” Hunter Uhl, a sophomore at OU, said. “You get to see more of the community than just the college campus. It helps you give back, and with environmental-based volunteering you’re helping the environment too.”