Bringing back the bluebirds

By Maleea Acker, April 2013

Victoria was described as a “perfect Eden” by Sir James Douglas. But then the sweet song of bluebirds disappeared.

This spring after darkness descends, thousands of songbirds will navigate up the Pacific Flyway, travelling north to their summer breeding territories. Migrating from Central America, Central Mexico and the Southwestern United States, it’s possible to see their slight forms against the moon, or even hear their furious wing beats as they traverse the Olympic Peninsula, Juan de Fuca Strait, the San Juan and Gulf Islands, and up the reaches of Vancouver Island. 

Amidst the Violet-green swallows, Golden-crowned sparrows, and Yellow warblers, Julia Daly, project technician with Victoria’s Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT), is crossing her fingers for the return of a few Western bluebirds, which have not bred here since 1995. That is, until last year. 

Buoyant in flight, carrying, as Thoreau wrote, “the sky on its back,” the bluebird is a gorgeous harbinger of spring across North America. With its convivial habits and warbling song, the male Western bluebird is unmistakable: rich, cerulean blue colours its head, wings and tail, set off by an orange and white breast. Its soft, tentative calls once echoed over our region’s open meadow landscapes. 

Population decline began in the 1950s, due to pesticide use, habitat loss, and predation by domestic and feral cats, invasive house sparrows and starlings. Since the 1990s, only rare sightings of Western bluebirds have been reported. “Our South Coast region—including Victoria, the Gulf Islands, the San Juan Islands and the Seattle area—once contained an abundance of Garry oak meadows,” Daly described over coffee. “As little as 100 years ago, birds could hopscotch over large swaths of native habitat since buried under suburban sprawl.” Migrators now navigate through highly modified urban landscapes. Pesticides have reduced bluebirds’ insect food supply; development has overtaken grassland and pasture areas; standing dead trees have disappeared—essential for cavity-nesting birds—and invasive European house sparrows and starlings now compete with bluebirds, occupying nesting sites and killing nestlings.

The few bluebirds that Daly has pinned her hopes to could be the first of many, as GOERT begins year two of its “Bring Back the Bluebirds” project, collaborating with, amongst others, Ecostudies Institute, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and San Juan Preservation Trust. In the next four springs, 45 nesting pairs from Washington State will be translocated by car and ferry (unless GOERT can find an airline willing to sponsor their travel). Each pair will be housed in an aviary on either the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s 21 hectare Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve, one of the largest deep-soil Garry oak ecosystems on the island, or on private property in the Somenos-Quamichan Lake area. 

In 2012, GOERT translocated four adult birds and nine nestlings to the Cowichan Valley. One of the pairs produced a second clutch of four nestlings—the first bluebirds known to have hatched on Vancouver Island in 17 years. Eight more pairs and their nestlings will be translocated to the island this spring. As this article went to press, GOERT received a report of the first sighting on San Juan Island for 2013. CRD residents are encouraged to report their own sightings to bluebird@goert.ca.

Though bluebirds are an easy sell, with their stunning plumage and long history lauded by song as a friend to happiness and liberty, one of GOERT’s biggest goals is to raise awareness of threats to their primary habitat—Garry oak ecosystems. To survive, bluebirds need nesting sites above expansive grasslands—the quintessential Garry oak meadow landscape—where insects and native berries are plentiful. Farmland can substitute for wild meadows when nest boxes mounted on fences allow birds to stay out of harm’s way. Even then, predators who climb fences are a threat. 

Irvin Banman, caretaker of the Cowichan Preserve, says this is where residents in the Capital Region come in. We need to appreciate and cultivate gardens that look more like the wild beauty on Mount Tolmie or the lower reaches of Government House in Rockland. Get to know native species, Banman recommends, and support them on our own property. Push for the continued expansion of parkland. As Daly affirms, “We’ve already lost bluebirds once. This reintroduction program isn’t going to work without the participation of south island residents.”

Daly also has advice that might fly in the face of some. “Keep your cat inside. Western bluebirds are ground foraging birds and very vulnerable to predation.” By some accounts, domestic cats kill more than a billion songbirds every year in North America. Daly argues that outdoor cats are a major threat to the survival of not just bluebirds, but all resident songbirds. 

GOERT’s project is modelled after San Juan Preservation Trust’s recently completed bluebird project, the first successful songbird reintroduction program in the US. According to program director Kathleen Foley, the organization translocated 92 adults; 238 fledglings hatched onsite; and San Juan currently has a resident returning population of 38 birds. When I attended SJPT’s 2011 bluebird celebration in a supporting landowner’s barn, Kathryn Martell of GOERT accepted an honorary nest box and travelled back with two large aviaries, which hold GOERT’s translocated pairs until they have adjusted to their new environment. “The release of at least 90 individuals has been linked with reintroduction success,” said Daly. It’s hoped that Cowichan Valley bluebirds will mingle with birds from nearby San Juan and expand into other regions—from the Comox Valley south to Greater Victoria, Metchosin, and the Gulf Islands.

To prepare for the bluebirds’ arrival, volunteers built and installed over 300 nest boxes in parks and on participating landowners’ properties. Now they’ll monitor the boxes and discourage invasive birds. GOERT has had a lot of volunteer help from groups like the Metchosin Biodiversity Project, the Victoria Natural History Society, École Mill Bay, Metchosin Technical Centre and the Nanaimo Navy League.

Wildlife translocation isn’t a new idea; thanks to global warming, it now takes place worldwide. As early as the 1880s, Australia moved Koala to its outlying islands; Scotland has reintroduced Ospreys to England; sage-grouse reintroduction programs are underway in Utah and along the border. 

Most often, we resort to translocation due to changes we have made to habitat. Over the last 150 years, dozens of species have dwindled in the CRD’s Garry oak meadows, as coverage plummeted from 10,443 hectares in 1800 to just 512 hectares in 1997. Developments on the slopes of Christmas Hill and Bear Mountain are only the most recent examples of urbanization replacing meadows where bluebirds once nested. 

Translocation success hinges on habitat quality, potential productivity of the released species, historical presence, and the length of a reintroduction program. GOERT chose Cowichan because the valley hasn’t been as affected by urban ecosystem fragmentation, which means more protected spaces and oak meadows.

Julia Daly hopes that GOERT’s project will be but the first in a series of regional reintroduction initiatives. “The best part of our first year was witnessing an entire bluebird family grow up and flourish in local habitat, but this gorgeous bird is still just a flagship species.” There are 117 others at risk of extinction in Garry oak ecosystems, she points out. “The CRD has been lauded for its efforts, and it has some intact ecosystem pockets, but we need the whole community on board, creating contiguous green spaces in people’s back yards.” 

Daly’s passion and her hope keep her going. “Before they migrated south last fall, this new bluebird family hung out on the western side of Mount Tzouhalem [North Cowichan]. That was also the last place Western bluebirds were seen in 1995. It was,” she pauses and smiles, “as if things had come full circle.” 

 

On May 4, from 1-4pm the Nature Conservancy of Canada will hold an open house at the Cowichan Preserve to view the spring bloom, demonstrate native gardening techniques, and talk about projects underway; visit natureconservancy.ca. For more information on GOERT’s Bluebird Project, visit www.goert.ca/bluebird. 

Maleea Acker, the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows on BC’s South Coast and The Reflecting Pool (poetry), has converted her own yard to a native plant meadow. On April 18 at 7pm, she’ll be giving a talk and slide show on Garry oak ecosystem gardening at Victoria Native Plant Study Group. See www.maleeaacker.com.