Western bluebirds in aviary (Photo by Trudy Chatwin)

Western bluebirds in aviary (Photo by Trudy Chatwin)

Bringing back the bluebirds

Gary Slater of Ecostudies Institute holds a western bluebird (Photo by NCC)

Gary Slater of Ecostudies Institute holds a western bluebird (Photo by NCC)

Love is in the air at the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC's) CCowichan Garry Oak Preserve in Duncan. Mating pairs of western bluebirds are making a new home at the preserve for the first time since the species disappeared from Southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands in the 1990s. These birds were brought up from Washington State in an attempt to rebuild a native bluebird population. They must be able to find suitable habitat and breed in the area in order to become re-established in the Cowichan Valley.

The beautiful blue songbirds were a once common sight on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. Known as harbingers of spring, their song would be heard as the weather turned warm and the vibrant wildflowers began to bloom in Garry oak meadows and woodlands.

No nesting pairs of western bluebirds have been documented on Vancouver Island or the Gulf Islands since 1995. This is likely due to habitat loss and competition from introduced species, among other factors. The bluebirds’ decline was probably due to a combination of loss of Garry oak habitat and removal of standing dead trees that provide cavities for nesting. The bluebirds must also compete for nest holes with introduced species such as European starlings and English house sparrows. The birds must also compete for food, due to the reduction of insect prey due to pesticides.

A group of partners has been working for more than six year to reintroduce this Garry oak ecosystem-dependent species to the Cowichan Valley. The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT), the Cowichan Valley Naturalists, Ecostudies Institute – Washington, the Province of British Columbia and the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) have contributed their skills and resources to the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project.

“GOERT and our partners have been placing nest boxes in suitable habitat throughout the region and building support for species recovery,” says Trudy Chatwin, chair of GOERT’s Vertebrates at Risk group and a provincial species at risk biologist. “NCC’s beautiful Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve is an excellent site for the birds. The extensive restoration work has improved habitat for several rare species, and bluebirds are no exception.”

“We have wanted to bring back the western bluebird to the Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve since the day we purchased the property in 2000,” said Tim Ennis, the NCC’s west coast program manager. “We are thrilled to be a part of the team to make this reintroduction a reality.”

After the birds have acclimatized in temporary aviaries, they will be released. It is hoped that they will raise their young in one of the many nest boxes that have been provided on the preserve or in nearby suitable habitat.

From 2012 through 2017, the Bring Back the Bluebirds Project will translocate up to 90 western bluebirds to rebuild a regional population.

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