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Keeping the bluebird song in Manitoba

Birdhouse program trying to reverse decline of species

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Herb Goulden, a Brandon Friends of Bluebirds member, records findings from one of his 45 bluebird boxes.

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Herb Goulden, a Brandon Friends of Bluebirds member, records findings from one of his 45 bluebird boxes.

NEAR CARBERRY -- There are a multitude of bluebird songs.

"There'll be bluebirds over... the white cliffs of Dover," comes to mind.

Or: "I'm a bluebird, I'm a bluebird, I'm a bluebird..." goes the Paul McCartney song. "I'll come flying through your door, and you'll know what love is for."

Less known is this extremely shy, haltingly beautiful bird had all but vanished from Manitoba in the 1930s. The native pasture it needs to survive had been plowed under for urban landscapes and farming. There was also competition from starlings and sparrows. Sparrows, which are not indigenous to North America but were brought over from England, were pushing out the bluebirds.

A railroader from Brandon named Jack Lane took up the cause in 1960 and began building birdhouses specifically designed for bluebirds. His enthusiasm was contagious and bluebird birdhouse construction was being taken up by youth clubs.

Today, if you're travelling down a farm road or lesser highway in western Manitoba, you're apt to come across a series of birdhouses nailed to the fence posts. Their residents? The still-hanging-on bluebirds.

Lane passed away in 1975 but an association formed by his converts, Brandon Friends of the Bluebirds, is still preserving the elusive avian 53 years after he began. It's an all-volunteer association run without government funding.

The bluebird "carries the sky on his back," to quote Henry David Thoreau. "Oh, they're gorgeous, gorgeous birds!" said Herb Goulden, out checking his line of bluebird boxes that he keeps near Carberry. He has 45 birdhouses posted and another 20 built and ready to go.

The mountain bluebird is almost entirely the colour of a pale blue sky. You will find mountain bluebirds as far east as Morden and as far north as Dauphin. The eastern part of the province up to the Canadian Shield only sees the eastern bluebird, the other bluebird indigenous to Manitoba, which has a rusty robin-like breast and a white belly.

Goulden, a retired wildlife biologist, became a Friend and is now chairman because "I wanted to do something for wildlife and I wanted to do something for my grandchildren." He takes his grandkids with him on his rounds.

"It's good that kids get out and see real things. They see things alive and they see things get born and they see things die," he said. He recommends reading Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. "That's my little lecture for today," he ended.

Bluebirds hang back and don't try to intervene when he opens a birdhouse for a peek. We found eggs in the second box. Even their eggs are beautiful. They're glossy blue, like candy-coated Easter eggs.

People in cities aren't likely to see bluebirds in their backyards. They like the open pasture, rich in the insects they feed on. Goulden has been seeing fewer bluebirds in his area and believes the reason is more people living rural-residential lifestyles, moving out of towns and commuting so they can reside on rural five-acre lots. Cut lawns just don't produce the insect diets the birds need.

Bluebird houses need an opening small enough (40 mm in diameter) to keep the riff-raff out. A bluebird is about the size of a swallow, so swallows frequently occupy the boxes, too. In the fall, volunteers remove the straw nests inside so mice or flying squirrels don't move in.

At one birdhouse, Goulden opened the top and we saw the mother sitting on her clutch of eggs. (It may have been the father, as bluebird males will sit on eggs when mom is feeding.) To get a better picture, Goulden decided to open the birdhouse front. Sometimes the bird will stay sitting for a photo, but not in this case. All I saw was a flash of azure feathers -- a blue carnation in flight.

There are about a hundred Brandon Friends of the Bluebirds. Many are retirees and they often work as couples. One person will drive and take notes while the other opens one of the approximately 2,300 boxes in Manitoba. Volunteers forward their data to the North American Bluebird Society.

"I think what's fascinating is bluebirds are remnants of the open grassland and native prairie that once existed here. We're really trying to hang onto what was here years ago," said Goulden.

Friends is always looking for volunteers to manage lines. People can contact Goulden at goulden@mts.net.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 A10

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