Bring Back the Bluebirds
In 2012, a partnership of local conservation organizations launched the Bring Back the Bluebirds project to restore Western Bluebirds to Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands, focusing on the Cowichan Valley as a core area.
Once common on Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands, and nearby areas of Washington and Oregon (the Salish Sea), Western Bluebirds declined over the last 150 years as Garry Oak ecosystems were converted and developed for agriculture, housing, and industry.
Western Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, meaning that they cannot build their own nest cavities, and depend on old woodpecker cavities, natural holes in trees, or nestboxes. Bluebirds and other native cavity-nesting birds began declining sharply in the 1950s as remaining large, old trees were removed and nesting cavities were lost. Competition with newly-arrived invaders English House Sparrows and European Starlings only made the problem worse, as these aggressive exotic birds took over remaining available cavities; House Sparrows are also known to kill native songbirds and their nestlings, to protect their territories. Before Bring Back the Bluebirds began in 2012, Western Bluebirds had not been known to nest successfully in this region since 1995; this population is considered Extirpated (locally extinct), and Western Bluebirds are Red-listed in BC.
Bring Back the Bluebirds is part of an international effort to restore Western Bluebirds and motivate oak ecosystem conservation throughout the Salish Sea area. Project partners include the experts who led a recent 5-year reintroduction project on San Juan Island, which successfully re-introduced a breeding population of Western Bluebirds after an absence of almost 60 years.
Through a combination of mounting nestboxes in suitable habitat and actively releasing Western Bluebirds captured from a stable source population, Bring Back the Bluebirds aims to re-establish a self-sustaining breeding population on southeastern Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands.
The project coordinators work closely with landowners, communities, and volunteers to ensure that there are enough nestboxes, safe breeding territories, and suitable habitat available for Western Bluebirds, and other species at risk, to survive and thrive in our remaining Garry oak ecosystems.
About the coordinating partners
The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team Society
The Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team Society (GOERT Society) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the recovery of Garry Oak and associated ecosystems in Canada and the species at risk that inhabit them. The Recovery Team was formed in 1999 as a comprehensive partnership of experts, and the Society was incorporated in B.C. in August 2007. GOERT has a staff of 4, a dedicated Board of Directors, and more than 100 expert volunteers who guide and implement its work. www.goert.ca
The mission of the Ecostudies Institute, a Washington-based non-profit organization, is to improve the understanding of ecological systems and the species that inhabit them and to promote conservation, management, and restoration efforts that protect and maintain native biodiversity. The Ecostudies Institute has a paid professional staff with oversight provided by a volunteer board of directors. www.ecoinst.org
Province of British Columbia
The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations delivers integrated natural resource management services for British Columbians, with a long-term vision of economic prosperity and environmental sustainability.
Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society
The Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society (CVNS) is a member organization BC Nature and has been actively enjoying, promoting, and teaching about natural history in the Cowichan Valley for many years. CVNS offers free education programs to the general public and members guide outings and hikes and participate in conservation activities.
Nature Conservancy of Canada
The Nature Conservancy of Canada is the nation's leading land conservation organization, working to protect our most important natural areas and the species they sustain. Since 1962, NCC and its partners have helped to protect more than 2.6 million acres (over 1 million hectares), coast to coast. More than one quarter of these acres are in British Columbia. www.natureconservancy.ca/bc
February 16, 2015
Duncan, BC – To the surprise and delight of local birders, it appears that some of the Western Bluebirds from a reintroduced population in the Cowichan Valley have opted to spend the entire winter on Vancouver Island rather than migrate to wintering grounds on the Washington and Oregon mainland, as expected by the local conservation groups that are working to re-establish the species on Vancouver Island. “After receiving confirmed reports of a few Western Bluebirds in Duncan in November and then two Western Bluebirds in Metchosin in December, we began to suspect as much, but there could be no mistaking that they are overwintering here when a flock of as many as 14 Western Bluebirds were spotted at Mount Tzuhalem Ecological Reserve near Duncan in mid-January,” says project coordinator Jemma Green.
This most recent sighting was reported by Terry Wiley, who was hiking past the entrance to the ecological reserve and spotted the small flock. "It was so wonderful to see them...We didn't really believe it at first that there would be Bluebirds here in the middle of January. It was such a thrill."
Wiley, a keen birder who often hikes on Mount Tzouhalem, was able to get a rough count of the bluebirds and even captured a few photos of the four closest individuals enjoying the sun and balmy temperatures. “[The bluebirds were] below us, in the Oaks and on the ground feeding. They were very active so it was difficult to get an accurate count, but we were able to confirm eight individuals with several more in the flock…Possibly as many as 12-14.”
Each bluebird released or hatched through the Bring Back the Bluebirds project wears a unique combination of coloured leg bands, which signifies that the birds belong to the reintroduced population and allows project conservationists to identify the individuals. “All four of the birds in the photos were banded – a good indicator that these are bluebirds from our reintroduced population,” says Green.
The unseasonably warm winter is likely the cause of this altered behaviour, as project partners in Washington report that some of the bluebirds from a large population south of Tacoma are also sticking out the winter rather than migrating further south.
What is less clear is how this will impact the recovery effort this year and in years to come, if the trend continues. “Provided the bluebirds can find enough to eat, they may have a better chance of surviving until spring to breed as they are spared the energy expenditures of migration,” states Green. She adds that this is a great reason for Vancouver Island residents to garden with native fruit-bearing shrubs, which, in addition to a variety of other ecological benefits, provide much-needed food for bluebirds through the winter.
A warden of the ecological reserve, Genevieve Singleton, reports that the bluebirds have not be seen on Mount Tzouhalem since that day in mid-January, but that they are likely nearby, and soon to be joined by
others returning from migration in the next 3-6 weeks. Singleton encourages southern Vancouver Island and Gulf Island residents to “keep their eyes open” and report any additional sightings to firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-383-3427. Identification tips and how to support the project can be found on the project website at www.goert.ca/bluebird.
For Wiley, “it was a very special treat for us to see this flock and recognize that the project is working... very well.” The news of the sighting came just as Bring Back the Bluebirds began a public fundraising campaign to support additional bluebird releases and population monitoring throughout the upcoming 2015 breeding season. Donations can be made by visiting the ‘Bring Back the Bluebirds’ campaign page at www.CanadaHelps.org.
The Bring Back the Bluebirds project is led by the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team, in partnership with Ecostudies Institute, Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society, Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Province of B.C. Funders for 2014 included: the James L. Baillie Memorial Fund of Bird Studies Canada, EcoAction, Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, North American Bluebird Society, TD Friends of the Environment, Parks Canada Agency, Public Conservation Assistance Fund, Vancouver Foundation, and private donors.
Western Bluebirds are one of more than 100 species-at-risk in Garry Oak and associated ecosystems.
Western Bluebirds were once common on Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands, but their population began to decline sharply in the 1950s.
The primary reason for their disappearance is a lack of available nesting cavities due to loss of Garry Oak habitat, removal of standing dead trees, and competition with exotic, invasive birds: European Starlings and House Sparrows.
Until reintroductions began in 2012, Western Bluebirds had not been known to nest successfully in this region since 1995, and are still considered extirpated (locally extinct).
Western Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, meaning that they cannot build their own nest cavities, and depend on old woodpecker cavities, natural holes in trees, or nestboxes.
Bring Back the Bluebirds tackles the problem of restoring Western Bluebirds from several angles: mounting nestboxes in suitable habitat throughout the region, to replace missing nest cavities; working with landowners and local governments to restore and protect remaining Garry Oak ecosystems; and releasing bluebirds from a healthy population into the Cowichan Valley, to establish a stable local population.
A male Western Bluebird rests on a Garry Oak branch in the Mount Tzouhalem Ecological Reserve in mid-January. His leg bands identify him as a juvenile that fledged from a nest near Lakes Road in Duncan in June, 2014. Credit: Terry Wiley
A female Western Bluebird rests on a Garry Oak branch in the Mount Tzouhalem Ecological Reserve in mid-January. Credit: Terry Wiley
Media Contacts Jemma Green Project Coordinator
Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (GOERT) 250-383-3427
Genevieve Singleton Mount Tzuhalem Ecological Reserve Warden 250-746-8052