Elmer Gross monitors 400 bluebird boxes he installed in the rural area around Stettler. It used to be 950 boxes, but Gross recently decided to downsize by passing some of the responsibility onto others.
He said, “I’m 81 years old. It’s hard climbing around” in the bush.
Gross’s 25-year commitment to ensuring there’s adequate housing for bluebirds netted him a Blue Feather Award from the Ellis Bird Farm.
While pleased with the etched trophy he received last weekend, Gross said he never expected anything for his labour of love. “I never planned for it and I was surprised when I got it.”
His nest box effort was sparked when Gross saw his first bluebird after retiring and moving to Stettler from the Hanna area in the early 1980s. He was enchanted.
“First time I saw them, I fell in love. . . . Once you have a bluebird in your yard, it’s like having a pet,” they are such gentle, genial birds, said Gross, who’s taken pictures of bluebirds perching on his patio.
Gross began constructing boxes after learning that bluebirds were having a hard time finding suitable housing because of a lack of trees. Not pleased with his first results, he got some blueprints, studied which houses and hole sizes suited the birds best, and modified the pattern accordingly.
With his first 70 boxes, he established the 38.6-km-long Ross Lake Bluebird Trail in southern Alberta.
Claudia Cameron, president of the Buffalo Lake Naturalists club, said Gross was soon monitoring the longest trail in Alberta and sending results to the North American Bluebird Society.
“Elmer Gross is the Bluebird Man in our area,” she said. If anyone is interested in starting up a bluebird trail, Gross coaches them on the best methods and supplies them with boxes he’s made — sometimes 70 boxes at a time, added Cameron, who nominated Gross for the award.
She credited him for sharing his knowledge about this hobby with the club members, showing bluebird videos and keeping members informed about the best box designs and nest results.
Gross figures he’s made about 4,000 next boxes over the years. Virtually all of the building material — which he estimates totalled enough to build a three-bedroom house — came from scrap wood he recycled from the Stettler landfill.
He still checks on the bluebird boxes he’s installed whenever the weather co-operates. Something always needs doing, from cleaning and repairing boxes, to monitoring which birds are living in them (tree swallows sometimes move in), and recording how successful the bluebirds are and reporting to the Bluebird Society.
Sometimes cattle knock the boxes over, said Gross, or nearby roads get too busy, causing birds to be killed by traffic. Gross usually relocates these nest boxes to other trails, attaching them to fence posts.
Gross, who recently celebrated his 51st wedding anniversary to his supportive wife, Ruth, said he’s just glad to help bluebirds survive. Lately, they need all the help they can get, with harsh spring weather over the last two years decimating the population.
Gross used to find 25 breeding pairs in boxes, but last year only found two. This year, the count has risen to three pairs.
Ellis Bird farm biologist Myrna Pearman said bluebirds around Blackfalds were also seriously affected by late spring snowfalls and cold.
The good news is that many surviving pairs are raising two broods of youngsters this summer.
Pearman, who is thrilled by Gross’s nest box efforts, believes the dry weather has helped the parent birds fledge the first batch of chicks earlier, leaving time for them to raise a second batch.