Mitzvah Project—The Tza’ar ba’aley Chayim Birdbath—a quick or slow nature project for home or school.
Until yesterday, my synagogue didn’t have a bird bath or any other water source for animals. I haven’t seen one in the 20 years I’ve been a member. Our courtyard is a perfect place for informal birdwatching: surrounded by classroom windows on two sides, and the Internet Cafe and school entrance on the third. I’m a Volunteer Tennessee Naturalist. I think about this sort of thing alot. It would have been so easy to buy and install a birdbath by myself in less than an hour, and bingo: water for wildlife. Or, I could make it a Mitzvah Project in a slow way, a participatory way, a way that makes for several active lesson plans, and that can foster a student’s sense of investment, stewardship, community and empowerment.
As I’ve mentioned before, the National Wildlife Federation makes it easy to do nature work with kids, and to work towards a goal of creating a certified wildlife habitat. The real payoff isn’t just to get the certification paper or even the nifty sign, but to involve kids in the process of thinking about habitat in the first place. I asked my Second Grade class if our synagogue was a welcoming place for wildlife. What’s wildlife? For our area: beneficial insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals. Why do we need to welcome wildlife? Because animals have a tough time. Why? Because of us: land development, pollution, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and even because of the ubiquitous American lawn (a monoculture. Don’t get me started).
Is this kind of nature work Jewish? Sure. Taking care of animals is a universal value. For my class, we gave it a Jewish label: Tzaar baaley Chayim. I thought about calling our nature work B’al Tascheet (do not destroy), but I already use this mitzvah for the recycle bin, and to explain why I save and reuse materials in the art room. I thought about Tikkun Olam (heal the world), but it is commonly invoked elsewhere, and I wanted something specifically for animals.
WHAT WE DID:
We talked about wildlife native to our area, and how it evolved alongside native plants. I brought in some neat insects, a local bird poster, a poster that showed different habitats within one single tree, and my own trays of native fruit, nuts, berries, leaves, twigs from trees on the property. We touched on the idea of native foodweb, using a jar of tiny hackberry psyllids as an example.
And then, we went outside. We took a Habitat Hunt, clipboards in hand. What essential elements are present or missing? Our checklist list was my modified version of the NWF list available in PDF download. We looked for examples of the Big Four: Food, Water, Shelter and Place to Raise Young.
Because our synagogue is surrounded by properties with mature trees and flower gardens, we fared pretty well on three of the four categories. Our own native walnut, hackberries, oaks and junipers give food and shelter, and several ornamental trees provide nectar and cover. Our row of huge Sugar Maples give sap as well, and are already studded with rows of precise holes made by winter visitors with that marvelous name, Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers. One maple has a dead crown, unsightly to most humans, but beautiful to cavity-nesters, insect-eaters and the insects themselves.
We took time to throw Silver Maple samaras (the winged seeds) and watch them helicopter back down and to nibble redbud blossoms (in the pea family!) and chew “sour grass” (Oxalis stricta, a common yard sorrel). We blew dandelions (don’t tell the Landscape Committee) and sniffed lilac blossoms. This may sound idyllic, but I promise, we were one breath from total chaos at every moment. Classroom management is not my forte.
What we did not find was water. One group insisted that the storm drain “counted,” that some animals might drink from a five foot drop beneath a grate, but we decided that only mosquitos would risk it, and we weren’t keen on encouraging that kind of wildlife anyway.
So, how can we provide water? “How about a birdbath?” someone hollered. My evil plan was working: of course I wanted them to think of a birdbath, but they didn’t, or at least they didn’t mention it, until that beautiful moment.
Now came an exercise in strategy. How can we build a bird bath? We brainstormed about materials: metal, cement, clay, and one ambitious student, bless him, said he would invite a local glassblower to create something for us. We needed a quick project, because our class only meets for 25 minutes, and it had to allow everyone to participate,. It needed to be safe for the birds: no paint, epoxy or other harmful chemicals; with a basin 2″ deep or less to prevent drowning, and about 24″ tall to protect from cats; and made from material that won’t get boiling hot in summer. It needed to be durable (cement and terracotta tend to crack in winter). It also needed to be attractive and subtle enough to please the Building Committee. Oh, and cheap, because I don’t really have a budget.
Ideally, we would repurpose something we already had, but frankly, we didn’t have much. Our landscapers leave behind no convenient limbs to saw into tripod basin stands. Our architects leave behind no spare bricks to stack into pedestals. I had a few plastic flowerpots that could conceivably be painted, upturned and stacked, but I have aesthetic issues with this classic project, and I have too many students for each one to paint a pot.
I decided to buy a new, guaranteed-safe basin from a locally-owned bird shop, and hunt for a pedestal idea at Home Depot. Found it: Concrete, stone-look pavers 7″ square, 96 cents apiece. Perfect. Cheap. Indestructible. Reasonably attractive, and will even match the stonework in situ. Each student can get a paver and stack it.
Of course, there is nothing to anchor the basin to the top paver. It would tip right over if approached by a crow or squirrel. So, I hot-glued a huge metal washer on the top paver, and a group of strong magnets to the bottom of the basin. Fixed.
At the next class meeting, I showed the materials that met our various challenges. The students were dubious until they actually stacked the pavers. “Neat.”
Next question: where should we assemble our birdbath? I told them to think like birds. We looked up and around the courtyard, taking into consideration the walkway (noisy children), the trees (safe perch), the parking lot (scary cars), and where the shade will be in summer. We picked a likely spot, stacked our stones, filled the basin and saw the next challenge: the water was lopsided. We spent the last 10 minutes trying different ways to level and stabilize the base stone. It was awesome.
Everyone wanted the honor of filling the basin, so we took turns slopping water out of a pitcher just in time for the dismissal bell. No leisure to stand and reflect or summarize, but we knew we had just done something good, something special, and we’d done it as a team. Tza’ar ba’aley Chayim. Our synagogue’s first bird bath.
I hope this is the first step in a process that leads to more nature work. We need to get rid of the invasive plants with berries poisonous to birds (Nandina domestica, or heavenly bamboo), and we need to plant native flowers to provide nectar and host plants for butterflies. We could put in a native honeysuckle (not the invasive exotic) and instantly attract hummingbirds. A Havdalah herb garden—even just in a half-barrel container—would double as food for insects, too. And so on. I’ll keep you posted.
Anytime is a good time to provide a bird bath. Depending on your weather, a Tu B’Shevat project would tie in nicely, like a double mitzvah. Traditionally, we give “gifts” to birds on Shabbat Shira, adjacent to Tu B’Shevat, but even if you just keep the focus on the birthday of the trees, a gift to a bird is a gift to a tree. Trees need birds as much as birds need trees. We need them both.
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Flowerpot birdbaths. Google it. Here’s one version. The terracotta types can be genuinely attractive, as can be mosaic versions, but they’ll contract, expand and thus shatter during winter temp variations. And who is going to remember to bring them in before the first freeze? Not I.
Birdbaths with tree branch legs: see these versions from TheArtofDoingStuff. There is one in my head with three hairy cedar posts as a tripod.
Jewish Children’s Garden Curriculum. Amazing.
National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat info
National Wildlife Federation Schoolyard Habitat info
National Wildlife Federation printable poster that shows different parts of a tree and the wildlife that live in each section. You’ll probably need to resize it, print, trim and glue.