In November we lost Dan Welsh, a dear friend of A Rocha.

“Dan the Bluebird Man”, as he was known among our staff, had a heart for Bluebirds. As a volunteer, Dan took care of all the Bluebirds that nested at Cedar Haven, and led a number of informative hikes on Bluebirds and Tree Swallows. 

I have never heard anyone speak so respectfully about birds. Dan understood the complexity of human involvement in the workings of nature, and was conscious of the influence we have on the rest of creation. The Bluebird in particular has an interesting relationship with humans. And this relationship, which shadows the fall and the rise of a species, tells an almost fable-like story of human & nature dependency — while illustrating the great impact we can have on the earth, both positive and negative in nature.

A Fable-Like Story

Starting in the early 20th century the Eastern Bluebird began to decline severely in numbers. But why? As eastern Canada and the United States were settled, invasive species, such as the European Starling and the House Sparrow, were introduced and aggressively outcompeted the Bluebird for nesting habitat. Moreover, as grasslands and forests were replaced with farmland, Bluebirds (nesting mostly in tree cavities… often making use of old woodpecker holes!) had to adapt.

So, they moved in with their human neighbours and began nesting in the rotted out cavities of old cedar fenceposts or in the hedgerows left by farmers as property divisions and windbreaks. This new nesting habitat wasn’t so dissimilar from their home in the trees. Thought not ideal, it would do… But not for long.

As agricultural technologies progressed, cedar fenceposts were replaced with steel, which of course offered no home for the bluebird, and hedgerows were pulled up to make way for bigger fields. (Not to mention the introduction of insecticides which eradicated their main source of food!) And so it was that the little Bluebird, now dependent on human activity, was homeless once again.

Bluebird populations plummeted.

For years the Bluebird was deemed a species at risk, but somehow in the past 50 years a great endeavour was undertaken to save the Bluebird from extinction.

This is where Dan comes in.

The Bluebird Man

Dan was a Bluebird steward. Dan built nest boxes, monitored Bluebirds, controlled invasive species, joined committees and organizations, and educated the public. Dan led hikes and shared his knowledge. He managed countless boxes every year, counting eggs, young and fledglings at each stage. He pulled invasive Sparrows from Bluebird nests by hand and pounded stakes into the ground to raise up homes for a small, blue bird with an orange breast and a warbling song that some say sounds like “cheer…cheerily…cheerful-charmer”. Dan was a friend of the Bluebird.

I remember one summer, an intern was checking one of our many nest boxes at Cedar Haven to monitor the progress of brood of Tree Swallows (one of our native species welcome in our nest boxes). As he began removing the screw to open up the little door to the box, he heard a voice yelling behind him, “Stop! Stop!”. Dan “the Bluebird Man” Welsh was running through the field towards the intern to explain that this box had Bluebirds nesting in it, and that he would take care of them. Dan was dedicated to these birds, and their wellbeing was his responsibility.

A Story of Hope

Bluebirds have come to depend on us once more, but this time we are offering them a chance to thrive. Thanks to Dan and others like him, the Bluebird has seen a population growth, and is now no longer considered an at-risk species. This is a conservation success story. It is also story of positive human intervention — of fessing up to our mistakes and working to repair them. The story of the Bluebird is a story of hope.

The European Starling and the House Sparrow continue to throw a wrench into our ecosystems, and large-scale farming and urbanization remain a constant threat to what natural habitat remains.

But there are still people like Dan; and people who have been taught and inspired by Dan (my mother for one), who will carry on his legacy and his commitment to stewardship. In his footsteps, A Rocha will continue this hopeful work of caring for the least of these: like a small, blue bird with an orange breast who calls us into spring with a “cheer…cheerily…cheerful-charmer!”

In fond memory of our friend, Dan Welsh.


Written by Ben McCullough (Cedar Haven Manager, Hamilton, ON)