BY ZACHARY CORMIER
Ellis Bird Farm is a small patch of property located about 17 km southeast of downtown Lacombe across the road from ME Global’s main plant on Range Road 260.
Initially when you drive down the small gravel road, it would be very easy to miss the small turnoff into one of the top bird sanctuaries in Alberta. The driveway is surrounded by trees on either side and the only indication is a sign that simply reads Ellis Bird Farm.
After making your way down to the Visitor Centre on the new gravel drive and parking your car, the first thing you will notice about the bird farm are the sounds.
A chorus bird call of every description imaginable fills the air at the little slice of paradise that first became a haven for wildlife under the care of Charlie and Winnie Ellis in the early 1950s.
“When you hear ‘Ellis Bird Farm’ sometimes you think we’re raising pheasants or something, but it’s just not so,” laughed Claudia Lipski, a casual staff member at the Bird Farm who also helps with the education programs and managing the bird trail.
According to Lipski, all of the different birds that visitors can see at the farm are wild and can come and go as they please. The reason that so many different types of birds end up nesting there is because of the way that it has been curated over the years.
“All of it is based on naturescaping. So you’re creating a habitat where the wildlife can come in. Hummingbird gardens and pollinator gardens as well.”
Walking through the property itself, visitors can definitely see the diversity in the plant life between all of the different gardens, all of them carefully set up and monitored by Head Gardener Cynthia Pohl.
“The key to attracting a lot of different wildlife is actually having a lot of diversity of plants. First of all, we have plants from all of the major plant groups,” said Pohl, noting that those major plant groups are grasses, bulbs, annuals, perennials, vines, shrubs and trees; both deciduous and coniferous.
“That’s the starting point. Then from there we want to have plants of all ages as well.”
All of the gardens at the Ellis Bird Farm are demonstration gardens that Pohl has set up to show different ways to attract wildlife and birds.
“Today, I was out on the bird trail and I had baby bluebirds hatching. It’s fascinating. In one nest five babies had hatched and there was one egg still to hatch,” Lipski said, noting that those kinds of discoveries aren’t uncommon at the bird farm.
During a walk through the quiet property, visitors can encounter Purple Martens, Chickadees, different kinds of ducks, blue birds and even a trio of Great Horned Owl owlets named Haley, April and Gus. Their parents, Ellie and Albert, have been nesting at the farm for a number of years.
“You can listen to the birds singing, see the birds flying. It’s a nice walk in the park and you can feel close to nature in a safe place,” Lipski said.
“It’s right in our own back yard. We’re less than half and hour out of Red Deer. It’s very easy to get here.”
Not only that, but visiting the Bird Farm doesn’t cost anything. It’s completely free to come in and walk the trails and even catch some water bugs on the pier.
Visitors can also head into both the new and old visitor centres and participate in a variety of activities and view some of the photos taken around the Ellis Bird Farm by Chief Biologist Myrna Pearman.
In addition to all of that, visitors can also spend part of their walks viewing the Ellis Bird Farm’s bluebird nest box collections, one of the largest in North America, which features nest boxes from all over the world.
“These are all functional nest boxes. The hole size is what’s important, and people have allowed us to put it up with their name beside it and where they’re from,” Lipski said.
It was bluebird nesting boxes that started Charlie Ellis’s fascination with birds all those years ago. According to the Ellis Bird Farm web site, over the years Charlie and Winnie rimmed the fields on their farm with about 300 nest boxes for Mountain Bluebirds.
From there the fascination grew and the siblings began building ponds and planting gardens specifically meant to attract birds, deer and other wildlife.
When the early 1980s rolled around, Charlie’s greatest concern was the fate of his birds after he became too elderly to continue to care for them.
Around the same time, Union Carbide (now MEGlobal) was looking for a place to build a new ethylene glycol plant.
Following a suggestion by the Red Deer River Naturalists, Union Carbide agreed to set up a non-profit charitable organization to continue the legacy of the Ellis family. MEGlobal still provides annual funding for Ellis Bird Farm operations.
Now, more than 30 years later, the Ellis Bird Farm is still a quiet place to enjoy the beauty of nature and it is dedicated to conservation of Alberta’s domestic bird species. It has also become a leader in special research and study into cavity-nesting birds.
The Ellis Bird Farm officially opens to the public for the summer on May 23rd at 11 a.m. For more information or full operating hours, visit www.ellisbirdfarm.ca.