Feed them, and the feathered creatures will come -- in flocks -- the students at North Harford Elementary School in Pylesville have learned.
Their efforts have attracted sparrows, cardinals, bluebirds and even woodpeckers to a wildlife sanctuary that they designed, built and maintain.
What started out three years ago as a project to beautify a scraggly, bare patch of land at the school has turned into a commitment passed on to each new group of fifth-graders in teacher Sylvia Hutt's class.
This year's caretakers are eagerly accepting their mission. They discuss the merits of ground cover ("You don't have to mulch and weed," they say), the quandary of procreating goldfish in the pond (too many fish equal too many "fish droppings") and money (they realize it doesn't grow on those trees they're planting for the birds.)
Previous classes have recycled aluminum for funds, but the price of the metal is down, so the students are soliciting donations and their teacher is looking for grants. The start-up cost was more than $300. Recently, the school PTA approved a contribution that has yet to be determined.
The preserve also teaches the children about citizenship, Ms. Hutt said. "It's about kid power . . . how you can make a difference."
The class that came up with the idea approached Beth Olsen, a naturalist at Philadelphia Electric Co.'s Conowingo Visitors Center in Darlington, for guidance on making the school plot appealing to birds. She visited the school and talked to the students about their project.
"I told them to provide the requirements: food and water for all seasons, shelter and breeding space," Ms. Olsen said.
She also discussed landscape design and the various plants they could choose to attract their main interest -- songbirds.
"I was impressed by how much input they had," Ms. Olsen said.
With the help of Ms. Hutt, parents and area businesses, the students drew up their plan, acquired the materials and made the sanctuary.
Last year was the "all work, little glory year when students weeded and mulched like crazy," Ms. Hutt said.
This year is the "updating year," she said. The students are setting up feeders, planning new shrubs, dealing with algae problems in the pond and doing research on what kinds of seeds the birds like.
On a chilly December day, four students -- William Holloway, Nikolina Jorgenson, Felecia Gillespie and Dan McBride -- gave a visitor a tour of the compact area tucked among school buildings.
The focal point of the 30-foot-by-40-foot garden is the student-made slate pond, which is surrounded by a path and several bushes and trees.
The students talked knowledgeably about plants, bird feeders and the live Christmas tree that had been decorated with berries, popcorn and peanut-butter-covered pinecones.
They were thrilled to see a new flock of birds fly over the school that day.
"We saw sea gulls," Dan, 10, later told Ms. Hutt.
While the gulls didn't land, there have been sightings of various birds, including goldfinches and juncoes.
The plot also has benches strategically placed for reading and, in suitable temperatures, a tiny, trickling waterfall.
For those interested in wildlife landscaping, a workshop will be -- offered from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays and Thursdays, Jan. 25 to Feb. 24, at the Conowingo Visitors Center. The cost is $15 and includes a text. To register, call 457-5011.