Tony Loyd, Bill Irwin, Christel Fong, Hans Galesloot, Victoria Loyd, John Wilson and Logan all build houses for Purple Martins. (SANDY MCRUER/ Special to the AV News)

PAC RIM ACTIVE: Port Alberni church helps house Purple Martins with birdbox program

United Church will hold community event March 22

BY SANDY MCRUER

Special to the News

Several months ago I got a phone call from retired Doctor John Wilson. He was interested in building bird houses for Purple Martins with members of his congregation in the Alberni Valley United Church.

Purple Martins are a kind of swallow. They are the largest swallow in North America and part of a group of birds known as aerial insectivores, which includes other families of birds such as nighthawks, swifts, and flycatchers. Their populations have declined more than any other group in North America over the last 50 years; more than nesting seabirds, forest birds, wetland birds, shorebirds and grassland birds. They are down almost 60 percent. So naturally, I was interested.

There are two sub species of Purple Martins: an eastern North American one and a western one. The eastern variety is well-known to nest as a colony in large condo-style houses. But the western ones prefer a little more space between them. Here each pair has its own house, but several can be on a single piling.

The Western Purple Martin is a modest conservation success story. From 10 breeding pairs nesting in untreated pilings at the mouth of the Fraser River the population has climbed to 12,000 in 2018. The success is entirely due to a nest-box program up and down Vancouver Island. They first came to this valley in 2013, four years after boxes were put up at Harbour Quay Marina. And just this year I heard that they had started nesting in the cavities of old pilings at Sproat Lake in front of John Wilson’s cabin.

Wilson had called for some advice on how to build Purple Martin boxes. He was under the impression that the martins nested like they do in the eastern part of the continent. I put him on to the Georgia Basin Ecological Assessment and Restoration Society’s website page on Purple Martins where there are detailed plans.

He wanted to involve children in the project. So, to make it easier for the kids, he assembled a team of us to pre-assemble 10 bird boxes, and sorted into kits. John, Hans Galesloot, and Bill Irwin, and I, met in his workshop one Saturday morning and got to work.

Then in mid-January after church John, Hans, Bill, parents and children had a work bee and everyone put the houses together. The next step was to put them up…somewhere.

Dr. Wilson says they plan to put up three at Clutesi Haven Marina, three at Sproat Lake Landing and three at his cabin. He wants to keep one as a spare, because you never know what can happen. After church on April 5 is when the gang will do it.

And I just found out that John and his gang are taking this one step further, by having anyone who wants to, to come and build swallow boxes as a modest fundraiser for the church. Thirty dollars will get you the kit, a place to assemble it and advice on where to put it up. It would be a wonderful family event. It’s on March 22 at the Alberni Valley United Church. You’d best call ahead as there are only 11 boxes, and you will need to get their safety requirements. You can reach the church at 250-723-8332.

I tried to express my admiration for all the effort he and his congregation gone to. But he dismissed it with a modest comment, “There are few things we can do to make this world a better place.” Good on you, John.

Sandy McRuer writes the monthly Pac Rim Active column for the Alberni Valley News.

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