The Mary Houston Bluebird Trail

A Bluebird Trail is a line of birdhouses (or nest boxes) specifically designed for bluebirds that are placed about every 400m (1/4 mile) along a rural road.  The nest boxes provide nesting habitat for bluebirds and other cavity-nesting birds (birds that nest in hollow trees) like tree swallows, wrens, and chickadees.  To determine the nesting success of the nest boxes they are monitored by volunteers who count and record the number of eggs or young birds.  If the volunteer has a permit from Environment Canada to band birds, the birds get a uniquely numbered leg band.  When banded birds are encountered again we glean important information such as how old they are and where they were banded or hatched.

In November of 1968 the Saskatoon Junior Natural History Society was formed with seven members aged 10 to 14.  Their first conservation project was aimed at helping bluebirds.  By April 1969 they had built 207 birdhouses and created a Bluebird Trail from Saskatoon to Simpson. With the adult assistance of Mary Houston, the Saskatoon Junior Naturalists (AKA the Young Naturalists) began monitoring and banding bluebirds and tree swallows along their Bluebird Trail.  Today, over fifty years later, the Saskatoon Young Naturalists are still busy monitoring and banding birds on the Mary Houston Bluebird Trail.

If you join the Young Naturalists on one of their monitoring trips, here is what you (might) expect:

EARLY JUNE:  At this time of year I expect the Tree Swallows will have started nesting.  We should encounter many nest boxes with eggs.  Hopefully we will be able to catch and band a few adult birds sitting on eggs.  Bluebirds start nesting early.  If we encounter bluebirds (usually the Mountain Bluebird), they should be sitting on eggs or the eggs may have already hatched. 

MID JUNE Tree Swallow eggs began hatching late last week. The babies will still be too young to band, but we will continue to monitor each next box.   Hopefully we will be able to catch and band a few adult birds keeping the babies warm.   Bluebirds should have fledged by now, although we may come across a late nest (or a bluebird working on a second clutch).

LATE JUNE:  The Tree Swallows will have hatched.  They normally take about 18 to 22 days to grow up and leave the nest.   We will be encountering baby Tree Swallows between 5 and 22 days old.  They will be old enough to band when they are about 10 days old. 

EARLY JULY:  I expect most of the Tree Swallows will be ready to fledge (leave the nest) or have already fledged.  I expect we’ll see a lot of empty nests as the birds are old enough to be on their own.  We will be looking for the late hatchers and possibly some second clutches (some birds try to have two sets of babies).

Our history:

50 years of the Saskatoon Bluebird Trail

In 1942 Isabel Priestly founded the Blue Jay. This journal of natural history and conservation for Saskatchewan and adjacent areas continues to be published four times a year. Priestly was a strong promoter of the Junior Audubon Societies and she included a Junior Naturalists section in the Blue Jay. This gave youth the opportunity to share their interests and observations and contribute to our understanding of the natural world. One of the first conservation projects undertaken by these Junior Naturalists was the establishment of Bluebird Trails. Mountain Bluebirds were in decline due to changes in its habitat and introduced species such as the House Sparrow and Starling. One method of helping the bluebirds was to build nest boxes and place them out along a country road. The nest boxes are monitored and the population numbers are used by scientists to chart the population trends in the species.

In 1961 Jack Lane and his Brandon Junior Naturalists began the Prairie Bluebird Trail. Jack Lane’s trail extended roughly from Winnipeg to Broadview. In 1963 Lone Scott, then a grade 10 student at Indian Head, connected his trail to Lane’s. This extended the trail west to approximately Raymore. Then in 1968, 12 year-old Ray Bisha moved to Saskatoon from Brandon along with Mike and Rod Bantjes from Yorkton. The boys convinced Mary Houston and Stuart Houston (who, in 1942 was a grade 9 student and an active executive member of the fledgling Yorkton Natural History Society) to start a Junior Naturalists Society in Saskatoon. With Stuart and Mary Houston as the “adult advisors” the Saskatoon Junior Natural History Society began. Their conservation project was the Bluebird Trail. In 1969, inspired by success of Lorne Scott’s trail, the Saskatoon Junior Naturalists built 270 birdhouses and created a trail over 200 km long to connect with Scott’s trail at Raymore. Over the next few years the number of houses grew to 450 and connected with Jack Kargut’s trail west of Saskatoon. The Prairie Bluebird Trail now extended from Winnipeg almost all the way to North Battleford. Mary Houston supervised and banded the birds along the Saskatoon portion of the trail. From 1969 to1998 Mary banded over 6500 bluebirds.  By the time she “retired” from the Bluebird Trail in 2009 the number grew to 8028 bluebirds banded.  (Mary also banded Tree Swallows along the trail.  The Birds of the Saskatoon Area indicates that she banded well over 15,000 Tree Swallows along the trail). Replicating Mary’s energy and enthusiasm for the Bluebird Trail was not easy.  It must be noted that it took four people to replace Mary (Melanie Elliott, Jan Shadick, Tim Haughian, and Greg Fenty) as the trail banders. 

The Bluebird Trail remains a major activity of the Junior Naturalists. Today, the name has changed to the Young Naturalists and they continue to participate in a variety of nature activities. Greg Fenty and Kyron Giroux have taken on the task of banding bluebirds and Tree Swallows as part of the Young Naturalists program.  The Mary Houston Bluebird Trail is somewhat shorter than in the glory years.  Today it runs  from just south of Langham to just north of Hanley.

Many of the adults who have volunteered to co-ordinate the Junior Naturalists were once youth members of a nature society. They know future conservation requires the nurturing of children’s curiosity with the natural world. Special thanks to the Houston’s, Bruce Donovan, Nigel Caulkett, Ron Jensen, Robin Cohen, Ross Barclay, Bob Green, Guy Wapple, and Nancy Young for their dedication to the Junior Naturalists program over the past 50 years.

(-Greg Fenty 2018)