Inmates gain woodworking skills by building birds new homes

Bluebirds and jailbirds have helped each other out.

Goldie Weeks does not use the latter term, but the former instructor at the Lethbridge Correctional Centre did involve inmates in building mountain bluebird nest boxes.

The result was a useful teaching program at the correctional centre as well as birdhouses that support Alberta’s mountain bluebird population.

“I was in search of a project that didn’t require a whole lot of material and something that was easy enough for the students to learn,” Weeks said at a recent meeting of the Mountain Bluebird Trails Conservation Society.

“It became a real win-win situation for the correctional centre and Lethbridge College. I taught the inmates, six of them at a time, for a three-week class, so the nest box turned out to be an excellent project for learning.”

The college administers programs at the correctional centre.

Weeks retired at the end of last year, having taught inmates shop safety and use of woodworking tools. His students produced 500 bluebird houses.

Those houses, each bearing a number, are now scattered about southern Alberta in areas frequented by mountain bluebirds and are monitored by members of the society.

“Once you explained what the purpose was and what the value was and what the success rate was, they all became very interested in it,” said Weeks about the inmates involved in the program.

“Each of the inmates in my class built two boxes, and I bet you a lot of them will remember the numbers and hopefully they will see them someday when they are out travelling around.”

Weeks made a few modifications to the bluebird houses that society members said have made a huge difference in bird use, nestling survival and nest box maintenance.

He found a way to build nine boxes from one sheet of three-quarter inch plywood, plus parts toward a 10th box. Pincher Creek Co-op donated most of the plywood, and he wanted to make the most of it.

Following a cold, wet spring that resulted in high bluebird mortality, Weeks introduced a drip line on the boxes so water would run down the channels rather than enter the nest boxes.

He installed a piece of flashing at the top of the box to limit breeze from the back and a drop-down bottom for easier cleaning.

The inside of the boxes are scored with small grooves on one wall to allow bluebird fledglings to climb from the nest when they’re ready.

“I call it a stepladder for flight training,” said Weeks.

A wood glue and water finish for the boxes makes them more weather resistant so they last longer.

The birdhouse program at the correctional centre has been in hiatus since Weeks retired but may be revived.

Weeks said he is grateful to the bluebird society for the project.

“It was an excellent teaching thing. It didn’t cost the college much. It made the centre look good in the eyes of people that look at government institutions like the jail and what value it has to the community, so it’s me that should be thanking you guys,” Weeks told society members.

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