December 01, 2023

Middle school FFA builds birdhouses for bluebirds at Newton Arboretum

Project AWAKE president says birdhouses will be installed along a trail at later date

Middle school students of the Newton FFA group — from left: Carter Lehrman, Ben Leonard, Ashlyn VanManen, Grace Guy, Mackenzie Cupples, Rilyn Titus, Aliviah Ross, and Brilea Moffitt — showcase their handmade bluebird birdhouses, which will eventually be installed on a "bluebird trail" at the Newton Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.

Bluebirds have something to sing about.

Newton FFA students from Berg Middle School on April 28 donated birdhouses to Project AWAKE, the organization managing the Newton Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, in the hopes they will be used by local eastern bluebirds, a species that some say has seen a decline in population in past years.

Doug Smith, president of the Project AWAKE Board of Directors, said bluebirds are hard to come by these days. They are “very bright and very beautiful” birds, and they used to be very common in Iowa. Bluebirds nested on the top of rotted fence posts and would eat flying insects on farmers’ crops.

“Well when we started using all the chemicals on the crops to kill the bugs, it would kill the birds,” Smith said. “So they went through a real decline. Our farming practices have changed where they don’t use as much chemicals, as harmful of chemicals. So you’re starting to see those numbers come back up.”

With the new stock of student-made birdhouses, those bluebirds may just repopulate at the Newton Arboretum & Botanical Gardens.

Smith accepted the FFA projects alongside office manager Jodi Flaherty and board treasurer Jenni Patty. The birdhouses will eventually be installed on a future “bluebird trail” at the 3000 N. Fourth Ave. E. facility. These small, wooden fixtures needed to be built in a particular way to meet bluebirds’ standards.

“The door opening has to be a specific size, or other sparrows and what have you will get into the nests. These are made to open up with a pair of pliers and clean up other nests,” Smith said of the birdhouses. “Our plan is to put them on the bluebird trail and place them several feet apart.”

Which will help reduce any territorial disputes between birds. Iowa Department of Natural Resources says habitat is what is most important for eastern bluebirds, and nest boxes are a good way of providing shelter in areas where feeding opportunities are available. And there is plenty at the arboretum.

In addition to improving the bluebird numbers, Smith said the birdhouses provide an education piece to the arboretum and showcase the importance community partnerships. Smith, as a former teacher of Newton schools, sees the value of FFA group’s contributions, which he said builds connections with the community.

“One of the things that burns me is when people say, ‘Kids today don’t do this’ or ‘They’re not hard working.’ No. No. That’s a generational thing … Let’s not put everybody in the same bucket. I’m always looking for things to do in a positive way and let the community know these kids are good kids,” Smith said.

Jarret Horn, the middle school FFA advisor, teaches career and technical education courses at Berg Middle School. These courses focus on skilled trades, agriculture, general career exploration and readiness. Horn said the Newton FFA members worked on the birdhouses sporadically at monthly meetings over the past few months.

“The FFA Motto is stated as: ‘Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, and Living to Serve.’ The last couple lines of the motto embody why our students engage with service projects like this one,” Horn said. “The hope is that through FFA we can develop students that, while taking care of their own needs, also look to meet the needs of those around them. As such, we are always looking for opportunities for our students to serve our community.”

To support the Newton Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, visit its annual spring plant sale 5 to 7 p.m. May 6 and 8 a.m. to noon May 7. Guests may receive door prizes at the fundraiser, which is sponsored this year by Coxes’ Greenhouse, Earl May, Fareway, Hy-Vee and Theisen’s.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.