FLORENCE - In 23 years of teaching science at Florence-Carlton Elementary School, John Parker has helped countless kids give the gift of shelter to Bitterroot Valley birds.
And in so doing, he has also brightened Christmas morning for scores of parents, who receive the birdhouses Parker's fourth-graders make each December.
On Tuesday, Parker led his three classes through the process of assembling the houses for possibly the last time - he is set to retire at the end of the school year.
"I've probably made more than 1,000 birdhouses in 20-plus years," Parker said. "It's more than 70 each year. That's a lot of birdhouses."
This is not your typical Christmas gift project, though.
The wooden houses are constructed out of recycled wood that Parker mills and planes at his house from downed and beetle-killed logs that area landowners donate to the cause.
"We try to do a lot of green things in school," he said. "So this kind of fits and they like it a lot. And banging them together is fun for them. It's just kind of a big noisy mess for about an hour."
The houses are constructed to dimensions that make them a nice fit for chickadees, nuthatches and wrens, Parker said.
As the assembly line for final construction is nearing its final stages, the students take the front piece of the soon-to-be completed birdhouse over to their art classes, where the fronts are painted and decorated. In addition, an informational plaque is written in English class.
That multi-disciplinary aspect of the project is especially pleasing to Parker, who said otherwise he would start to question the amount of hours spent getting the whole thing ready. This year, he estimated he milled, cut and planed about 400 individual pieces of wood and predrilled about 1,000 holes to simplify the assembly process.
"In the long run, it's one of those school projects that takes more time to prepare than you actually get out of it," Parker said. "But it's just one of those things I like to do."
All of that extra effort and attention to detail doesn't come as a surprise to Chrissy Hulla, principal at Florence-Carlton Elementary School.
"We've been very fortunate over the years to have somebody who's capable and willing to take on such a great project," Hulla said, adding that Parker will be missed.
Whether they come into the school on "building day" or simply open the gift on Christmas morning, Parker's effort is not lost on the families of his students, Hulla said.
The families' participation in Tuesday's final construction is the best part, Parker said.
"It's a great day because we've got the parents in here helping with a fun activity with the kids," Parker said. "And the kids get to build something that birds get to enjoy."
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.