The Mystery at Ellis Bird Farm

By Kathy Morrell


Her name is Amelia.  She is truly remarkable because, for the first time, she has allowed scientists to unlock the mystery of the migratory flight route of her species, the Purple Martin. 

Before her flight south from the Ellis Bird Farm (EBF) near Lacombe, Alberta, biologists attached a geo-locator to her little body.  This is a device that senses and records the times of sunrise and sunset. From that information, scientists at York University were able to determine the latitude and longitude of the bird along its 6000 kilometre flight path from the rain forests of Brazil back to her nesting site at the Ellis Bird Farm.

Amelia and four other Purple Martins have solved one mystery but another remains. This year Ellis Bird Farm and its partners from York University will attach geo-locators to a number of Mountain Bluebirds with the aim of learning more about their migration. Will scientists be able to track their journey?  Will another migratory bird map be added to the EBF website, one to rival the information about Amelia and her glorious trip to Brazil?  Maybe, hopefully. 

The story of Amelia has had an unusual and remarkable side story.  Imagine this scenario.  A group of men are gathered around a very ordinary birdhouse that stands not too far from the Ellis Bird Farm Nature Centre.  They are businessmen representing MEGlobal Canada, a joint venture of Dow Chemical and Petrochemical Industries, the company that provides the operational funding for Ellis Bird Farm. 

These men, many of them from Kuwait, are in Canada to view the company facilities near Lacombe, though this particular morning, they are touring the adjacent Ellis Bird Farm.  “Birds” they might ask. They are a little skeptical.  One or two glance at their watches.  Another man stares off into the distance, wondering perhaps about lunch or the long air journey back to Kuwait. 

That’s when Myrna Pearman begins her story about Amelia, the splash of purple seen leaving and enMyrna Pearmantering her nesting box.  That’s when Myrna traces the journey of this little creature from the birdhouse to a far-off Brazil.  That’s when these businessmen, whose world is one of the bottom line, begin to appreciate the reality before them. Amelia makes an annual migration that is nearly as far as their first class air journey back to Kuwait.  The men stand entranced, watching a flitting entity of energy and light, realizing the importance of what they see.  

That afternoon, the board of MEGlobal asks the all-important question.  What do you need to continue your work at EBF?  The answer came - $450,000 for a new nature centre.  That same afternoon, the deal was made. Thanks to Amelia, Ellis Bird Farm has a new facility that will open in June of this year.  Of sadder note, Amelia did not return to the EBF in 2013. 

The history of the Ellis Bird Farm is an unusual partnership between industry and conservation.  In the early 1980s, Union Carbide was looking for a site to build an ethylene glycol plant. An aging Charlie Ellis was looking to sell his farm. Negotiations began. Charlie’s problem – what was to become of the life-long conservation efforts he had made on his land?  Following a suggestion by the Red Deer River Naturalists, Carbide agreed to continue the Ellis legacy through a non-profit charitable company, Ellis Bird Farm Ltd. Over the past three decades, even after a process of mergers and ownership changes in the company, that agreement continues.  

The YFBTA is to benefit from that on-going commitment between industry and conservationists.  Myrna Pearman will be a presenter at our 2014 Symposium.  She will talk about cavity-nesting birds: the Mountain Bluebird, the Tree Swallow, the House Wren, the American Kestrel, the Purple Martin, and the Common Goldeneye. And of course, she will mention Amelia. 

In the past, cavity-nesting birds have built their nests in holes created by other birds such as the woodpecker or flicker.  The problem is that with the loss of tree habitat, there are fewer and fewer of such naturally occurring cavities. In addition, European Starlings and the Common House Sparrow out-compete the cavity-nesting birds for sites.  The answer in many localities and at the Ellis Bird Farm in particular has been the introduction of bird houses. All they want is an enclosed space and the bird houses seem to serve that purpose just fine. 

Myrna Pearman has a life-long interest in birds and nature, an interest developed as a child. She was only thirteen when her father saw a bluebird in the back pasture.  He hustled his children into the pickup truck to see the lovely creature.  Myrna said she would never forget that day.  She was entranced with the bluebird’s beauty.

“I’ve been looking after bluebird boxes ever since,” she added.  As an adult, Myrna became a biologist and site services manger at EBF.  She is the author of books about birds and nature, the proceeds of which go to the Ellis Bird Farm and other conservation groups. 

In preparation for Myrna’s talk, you might want to visit the EBF website to see the Farm’s remarkable work in conservation, to view the videos the staff has developed from their webcams?  It will give you a little more background for what is sure to be an interesting and enthusiastic presentation.


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