Yesterday we headed to the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, CT, along with some friends, to build gourd birdhouses. After a brief introduction in the project room, our instructor, Khalil, took us into the recreated longhouse to explain the history and importance of gourd birdhouses. Native people knew that purple martins, a kind of swallow, liked to build their homes in hollows and cavities. To attract the birds to their villages and to help provide them with shelter, the natives would create and hang birdhouses from hollowed out gourds. Gourds, we learned, are inedible squash that are dried to make tools, bowls, birdhouses, rattles, etc. The drying process takes up to six months and great care must be taken to ensure the gourds do not rot.
Over the years, the purple martins became dependent on man-made cavities for their homes. Their population plummeted last century when European starlings were released and competed for nest sites. House sparrows also compete for nest cavities, so it will be important that we monitor our gourds to ensure the survival of the purple martins.
Once the children understood the importance of their task, they headed back to the project room and were each given a gourd that was already dried, drilled, and cleaned out. They were then provided with pencils and paints to decorate them to their hearts' content. The room was absolutely silent for a good ten minutes while the children charted out their designs and meticulously began applying the brightly-colored paint.
We have been inspired to plant some gourds on the Eastern Woodland School property this spring for harvest this upcoming fall. We hope to dry them with the help of the pellet stove and then make tools, bowls, and more birdhouses next spring!