As the days become longer and leaves begin breaking from their buds, yet another sign of spring may be flying overhead – Western Bluebirds! If you are not familiar with these delightful and colorful birds, you are certainly not alone. Western Bluebirds (Sialia Mexicana) have been extirpated (locally extinct) from southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands since the mid-1990s, but as recently as 50 years ago they were a well-known sign of spring in our area, especially in their preferred breeding habitat: open Garry Oak meadows.
In an effort to restore this Georgia Basin population, the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (GOERT) is working with a large network of project partners on an ambitious 5-year reintroduction project, which kicked off last year. The project has two main components: the translocation of wild Western Bluebirds from a healthy US population to the Cowichan Valley for release and the installation of bluebird nestboxes in remaining habitat. The project is modeled after the successful reintroduction of Western Bluebirds to nearby San Juan Island where they hadn’t nested since the 1960s.
Last spring, 17 bluebirds were released in the Maple Bay area and some of them nested in a nestbox near their release site! The 4 nestlings that hatched in early July were the first Western Bluebirds known to have hatched on Vancouver Island in 17 years.
“The Cowichan Valley has been highly supportive of the project” says Genevieve Singleton of the Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society, a key project partner, “Many local residents are volunteering to build nestboxes for the project, while others are hosting and monitoring nestboxes on their properties containing suitable habitat. Assistance has also come by way of the numerous bluebird sightings reported to the project’s bluebird hotline by local birders. It’s been heartwarming and encouraging to see the community come together for the bluebirds and their habitat.”
Kathrin Amini, who is hosting a couple nestboxes on her property, explains how her family got involved in the bluebird project: “I had seen an article about the project in the local paper and was mesmerized by this beautiful blue bird. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be neat to help these birds return the Cowichan Valley?’ I shared the idea with my two young boys (Alexander 5, Darius 9) and they thought that it would be fun to monitor some nest boxes and help the birds settle in.”
Keep your eyes on the sky! Western Bluebirds have been returning to the Cowichan Valley from their overwintering territories south of the border and more bluebirds are scheduled to be released this spring. Please let GOERT know if you see one! Bluebirds are slightly smaller than a robin. The males have bright blue backs and wings and orange breasts. The females have a similar pattern but are more muted in colour. They hunt for ground-dwelling insects. Please take note of the coloured leg bands they may be wearing.
Visit GOERT’s website www.goert.ca for more information.