Making a place for Eastern Bluebirds—and philanthropy

If you had asked me to guess the first object I would add to the museum's new philanthropy collection, I never would have said a Virginia Bluebird Society (VBS) nest box. I'm no birder and somehow had never heard of bluebird societies until recently! When I encountered VBS boxes while out for a hike on a visit to Charlottesville, Virginia, though, I knew I had to have one. The nest box is a great object for the collection because it shows how philanthropy is a long-term conversation among many people. Moreover, the box is an object that effects the change bluebird society supporters seek.

Wooden box with hole in it for birds and wire mesh around opening. There are lichens growing on the top of it. A nail or screw is visible on one side.

Bluebird societies date to the 1970s. A species native to North America, the Eastern Bluebird population declined drastically during the 20th century as urbanization and other developments changed the cavity-dwelling creatures' habitats. Another threat came from non-native birds, such as the European Starling and House Sparrow.

Bluebird lover Larry Zeleny, a born-and-bred Minnesotan who lived his adult life in Maryland, spearheaded an effort to bring attention to the songbird's looming extinction and to reverse the trend. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, had heightened concern among many Americans about the loss of birds due to environmental changes and led to efforts such as Zeleny's. Starting in the mid-1960s, he began setting up nest boxes to provide a hospitable environment for the birds, and within a few years, baby bluebirds were hatching. In 1977 Zeleny and others founded the North American Bluebird Society. In the years since, Americans have founded other local and state bluebird societies and citizen volunteers have put up and maintained thousands upon thousands of nest boxes. As a result of their efforts, the Eastern Bluebird population is reviving.

Photo of nest box (wooden box with wire mesh on stick) in a backyard. Trees and grass visible in background.

The box I saw was put up by Matthew Bergstresser, a young man from Charlottesville, as his Eagle Scout project. As I explored acquiring a box, I learned about his efforts and those of bird lovers Cathy Hindman and Christine Boran. What struck me was the way their dedicated volunteer work in their communities joined with the earlier, and ongoing, efforts of other Americans who have given time, talent, and treasure for environmental causes. Today's bluebird advocates contribute to a project that dates to the 1960s, and even to the late 1800s when some Americans began raising concerns about the massive destruction of birds for feathered hats. When supporters of bird conservation place boxes in national and state parks, they also build on philanthropists' efforts—often contested—to create public lands.

Small blue bird with a tan belly. Its beak is pointed up in the air and its large eye is open. It's sitting on a branch.

Besides setting up and maintaining nest boxes, Americans participate in bird conservation efforts in other ways. Hundreds of thousands of citizen scientists gather and contribute data on birds for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's research, with many birdwatchers participating in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, and in the Smithsonian's own Migratory Bird Center Neighborhood Nestwatch. For all these reasons, the nest box is a great object for the museum's collection because it helps us understand how philanthropy is an ongoing conversation shaped by giving in the past and continued or redirected today in hopes of shaping a future we imagine.

Photo of the grounds of the National Museum of American History. There's a large tree with leaves just starting to come in for spring. On the ground, some small plants and purple flowers. A sign indicates this is Urban Bird Habitat.

Another reason I like the nest box so much is that the object itself is essential to undertaking the particular cause. The history of philanthropy is a new collecting area for the museum, and colleagues and I have started talking with people about objects we might acquire to capture stories of their giving. Some potential donors of objects are puzzled about what type of things we might be interested in. There's no one right answer since different objects tell different stories. But when possible, I hope to find objects that either structure giving (for instance, a collection box) or structure the implementation of the philanthropic project. The nest box does the latter. The box creates nesting sites for bluebirds and thereby makes environments friendlier to the birds. Key to conservation efforts, the object helps us understand the nature of pursuing a particular philanthropic agenda. I hope it will also help us answer questions about what belongs in a national collection of American giving.

Amanda Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy in the Division of Home and Community Life. The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein. This year, the Initiative is exploring philanthropy's impact on issues of sustainability and the environment.