Conservation heroes in the county: Richard Bird
You’ll recall from part one of this series that when I started working for the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), Prince Edward County (the county) quickly stole my heart. From its rich wetlands to its dry grasslands and migratory birds — I loved it all. But most of all I loved the people; the conservation-minded community in the county is like no other. Many of these people are partners in conservation helping to protect, conserve and steward land on the south shore of the county. Others are people-focused and are interested in outreach and education, building relationships and telling stories. And a story is exactly how I met my next conservation hero.
I’d like to introduce you to my mentor and dear friend, the ultimate storyteller, Richard Bird. The world needs more Richard Birds, and I’ll tell you why.
Richard grew up just west of Belleville, Ontario, in a rural, marshy area on the Bay of Quinte. He recalls that it was “full of muskrats, with muskrat houses everywhere!”
“I remember a day exploring in there and we found the nest of a marsh wren,” recalled Richard fondly. “It was such a beautiful thing; I couldn’t believe it. Neighbouring friends and I spent hours in that marsh exploring. We would take our leaky boat out and paddle around. What’s better for a kid than a leaky boat in a marsh?” Unfortunately, that marsh has since been filled in. And this is one of the reasons Richard is so passionate about conserving and protecting land.
A self-proclaimed science nerd, Richard dedicated his life to teaching science — to chemistry, in fact.
“I should have been a biologist” he laughed, but chemistry was where he ended up. He spent 32 years teaching at Quinte Secondary School. After he retired, he got involved with the Hastings Prince Edward Land Trust (HPELT) as vice president for about a decade. With HPELT, he helped negotiate deals to protect land in perpetuity in both Hastings and Prince Edward Counties. He spent a lot of time engaging with landowners who had interests in protecting their land. His job? To listen to their stories, find what it is about their land that they love and help paint a picture of what it might look like to protect their land. His first and most memorable project with HPELT was the Miller Family Nature Reserve — a 198-hectare property near Milford, on the south shore of the county. Recently, Richard moved to the board of the South Shore Joint Initiative (SSJI), where he is involved with conservation on the south shore.
The very first time I met Richard, he told me a story about the time he had spent on Main Duck Island over the years. Main Duck Island was NCC’s first conservation project in Prince Edward County in 1977, which was transferred almost immediately to Parks Canada. His story included some funny bits, of course, but also memories of how special the place was and how it ultimately ended up getting protected. I’ll save you the details in case you and Richard ever cross paths, as he will surely want to tell you himself!
One of my favourite things about Richard is his natural knack for storytelling. I have interacted with Richard dozens, if not hundreds of times, over the last five years and every single time he says, “I’ve brought something for show and tell.” Sometimes it’s a book, sometimes it’s an old piece of syrup-making equipment, sometimes it’s a photocopy of an old magazine article. No matter what it is, he loves to tell stories.
Stories are one of the most valuable tools for conservation. And here I am today telling you just that — a story. So, I asked Richard why telling stories is so important him. He brought it back to his days as a chemistry teacher.
A knack for storytelling
“When you’re teaching,” he said, “you deal with real people. And real people are what stories are all about.” Richard then asked me how many people know that NCC protected Main Duck Island. “Probably very few,” I answered. “Exactly!” he said. “This is why I need to keep telling my stories!” And he keeps telling them. Whether it be behind a booth for a local conservation organization, speaking to a local club (he’s spoken to nearly all of them), helping kids build bird feeders at a school or just dropping by to say hello, he keeps telling these stories.
Richard’s proudest moment was hearing the news that McMahon Bluff was protected forever. This sensitive and rare piece of land was protected at the end of 2020 by NCC. The Hastings Prince Edward Land Trust had tried to purchase this property in 2008, with NCC actively working to help HPELT with the acquisition. Unfortunately, the deal at that time had fallen through but in 2020 the land was protected through an Ecological Gift to NCC. Richard had previously told me the story of HPELT’s historic efforts to protect this land from development. They really did lay the foundation to have this special spot protected, so he was very excited that he could now change the ending to this story, and so was I.
Some of Richard’s favourite pastimes include making maple syrup and building canoes. In fact, when I recently moved to a wooded property, Richard taught my partner and I everything we needed to know to produce our own syrup. We also recently joined him in a canoe-building session. Richard builds cedar canvas canoes in his garage. From bending the ribs, to planking and canvasing, he does it all. Watching the process unfold first-hand was almost like watching a ballet, featuring a story told piece by piece in chapters of delicate and careful work, all culminating in the final product, or story: a canoe. Richard has now built over 30 canoes and more than a third of them have been auctioned off to support conservation efforts on the south shore. Every canoe, of course, comes with a story or two. “The world would be a better place if everyone had a wooden canoe,” Richard remarked.
Being a conservation hero isn’t just about the stuff you can see — the events, the land protected, the on-the-ground stewardship work — it is also about the people. It’s about sharing information, fostering meaningful relationships and making connections. It’s about getting people interested, getting people to care, hearing their stories and telling them your stories too. Richard was not only an NCC donor but he is one of our biggest boosters in the county, always taking opportunities to promote our work.
Rudyard Kipling is famously quoted with saying “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” So, let’s not forget. The world needs more storytellers. The world needs more Richard Birds.