John Lane: Canada’s Bluebird Engineer

From Sialia Volume 1, Issue 1 (Winter 1979)

John Lane’s most imposing feature, his silver-white hair, blended perfectly with the snows atop the prairies near Brandon, Manitoba. The wind-chill factor was 50° below zero. It was early morning in late fall. Lane was already at work. He was more than a few years beyond sixty-five, and while he did not move with the graceful abandon of the young people surrounding him, he did progress with loping, purposeful strides. The sky encircling the landscape was customarily clear and intensely blue. But it was cold; Lane’s already ruddy cheeks grew increasingly scarlet. His dark parka gave his large frame extra dimension and, at the same time, reaffirmed his frailty. All the same, this man had work to do and, like anything he ever attempted, he accomplished it unsurpassingly well.

At this stage of his life much of Lane’s work consisted of providing nesting boxes for bluebirds. He was Brandon’s “Bluebird Man.” On this particular morning, he and his group of Junior Birders were placing the last batch of nesting boxes that were so carefully made and numbered throughout the year. They knew the Eastern and Mountain Bluebirds would soon be seeking cavities around which to establish territories and in which to build nests. They knew this because they had been at this work every year since 1959. And largely through the efforts of Jack Lane, his supportive family and friends, and his Brandon Junior Birders, the largest “bluebird trail” in North America was established. At the time of Lane’s death in 1975, in his seventy-second year, the trail consisted of 4,750 nesting boxes, stretching almost 2,500 miles across the southwestern Canadian countryside. From 1970 to 1974, more than 12,000 juveniles, mostly Mountain Bluebirds, were banded from over 1,000 nesting boxes.

This achievement is all the more remarkable because, at the start, Lane did not even know what others had done to help bluebirds. As a “competent amateur,” he figured it out for himself. It was just as well, for he was an extremely independent man, who accepted and acted on his own ideas. Although he was born into a large family, Jack was somewhat a loner as a child. His interest in nature, particularly birding, came as the result of an Audubon Society grade school project. Young Lane enjoyed the solitude of Brandon’s grassy prairies, and he often used weekends and vacation periods to forage the fields around the small city looking to uncover nature’s secrets. He occasionally saw a bluebird or two, although the species was becoming increasingly rare.

Lane’s formal education ended in the eleventh grade when economic necessity dictated he take full-time work. At age 23, he began a forty-five year relationship with the Canadian Pacific Railway. Eventually, he became a CPR conductor, and from that position logged thousands of hours observing Canadian natural habitat. Once, while watching from the caboose of his sidetracked train at Elkhorn, Manitoba, Lane noticed a pair of Tree Swallows struggling to establish a nest in a small opening within the tubular sleeve covering a telegraph pole guy wire. The incident exemplified the plight of most cavity-nesting birds: natural nesting sites were very difficult to find. Lane realized that nesting holes would have to be provided if species such as bluebirds were to survive in the area. His vision on the matter was as straight and clear as the view framed by the tracks of a CPR line cutting through Manitoba.

According to Jack Lane, 1935 was “a year that must have been a poor one for birds.” For in that year, at age 32, he married his first girlfriend, Nora McKenzie of Rapid City. The two met because of a shared interest in birdwatching, and the hobby helped cement a forty year marriage. Jack ran his trains on time, Nora taught school, and they began to raise a family starting with a son, Robert, and later, a daughter, Anne. The marriage was a natural. Nora fed her husband’s curiosity and his “child-like” enthusiasm. Jack read voraciously, wrote poetry filled with the imagery of nature and naturalists, cultivated a life-long interest in classical music, and tended a magnificent garden from which he harvested fruit to make Brandon’s best jellies and jams. As a parent Lane led by example, but his standards were high. His daughter dreaded piano practice when her father was in the house. He could never understand why she made the same mistake twice!

Despite war and economic privation, the Lane family prospered. Robert shared his father’s interest in natural history, later taking a doctorate in oceanography. Anne graduated as a music major from Brandon University, later teaching school. Once the children had so successfully matured, Lane really began to “blossom.” Drawing upon his years of experience along the rails of the Canadian Pacific, his walks and tours of the fields near Brandon, and an extra-curricular science project which Nora helped coordinate for the Brandon public schools, he laid the foundation of the “Great Trail of Canada.”

In 1959, Lane’s records indicated he had not seen a bluebird in thirty years. That same year, under Nora’s guidance, the Brandon Junior Birders club was organized to provide an option for youngsters, aged 8 to 18, to learn more about conservation practices. But the club needed a focus. Jack, his memory turned to the Tree Swallows and the guy wire, still hoping to bring bluebirds back to Brandon, put the small group of boys to work building nesting boxes. Operating from Lane’s specifications, the boys gathered at his workroom or driveway and, in assembly line fashion, put the boxes together, each boy doing a certain part of the construction. The boxes were numbered meticulously, if not artistically.

When the boxes were completed, Lane orchestrated their placement. He drove the back roads of the area, nailing boxes to power poles, fence posts and trees. As was his custom, Lane made each trip an adventure, pointing out the ecology of the area surrounding each nesting box site. Over the next three years, 749 nesting boxes had been positioned and notes had been taken, listing by number the locations and any other activity around the nesting box. All boxes were monitored frequently. In these formative years, a pattern of observation had evolved which carries through to the present patience. At the start of the 1963 nesting season, no bluebirds had nested in the houses, although some Tree Swallows had.

The Junior Birders continued their production of nesting boxes, while some of the boys’ parents added to the inventory. Then, one of Lane’s good friends, C.E.R. Collins, a retired telephone system superintendent, offered the services of his well-stocked workshop. Collins soon turned out boxes in lots of 50 to 100. All of this effort finally paid off. The boys saw their first bluebird in the spring of 1963, and the Lane trail produced 36 Mountain Bluebird broods and 34 for Eastern Bluebirds during the year.

From that time on, growth was prodigious. With Brandon at the hub, the nesting box trail expanded in all directions; west as far as Broadview, Saskatchewan, south to the International Peace Garden on the American border, east as far as MacGregor, and north to Ste. Rose du Lac. Success followed success.

Lane’s newspapers accounts drew others to the cause. People from Winnipeg and Selkirk joined their trails to his. Today, the entire complex extends over 1,000 miles in length, with an additional 1,500 miles of side road coverage. Almost as staggering, Lane, until his death, scrupulously accounted for each nesting box, for each nest built and for tens of thousands of young birds fledged. After monitoring 40 miles of trail, Lane would rush home to Brandon and type this field notes, filing them away as a record of each year’s successes and failures.

More than 200 boys became Brandon Junior Birders under Lane’s tutelage. All have been touched by his influence. A very high number have pursued careers in the biological sciences, studying ornithology, taxidermy and medicine. One outstanding member, with a prescience which belied his years said: “No matter what the Juniors end up doing, each of them goes away with a keener sense of the outdoors and an appreciation for our natural environment. Nature has so much to tell us, and she’s been working at it so long, that none of it can be a lie.” Certainly Jack Lane would have agreed, for it was a sentiment that he often expressed.

But Lane was no saint. He was a decent, sensitive man with a strong sense of ethics and responsibility. Yet he could hardly have maintained a close rapport with 200 boys without an easy manner and a spontaneous sense of humor. He was a leader, without personal ambition. He worked well with the young and the old, the highbrow and the low. He could, as he once said, “run with both the hounds and the foxes.”

Above all, however, he was a proud, vitaI man, able to husband his time with amazing facility. He had spent his first 57 years as prologue for the last 15. His “amateur” status was greatly jeopardized by the following accomplishments, sufficient to satisfy most highly professional scientists. Aside from the monumental trail, he was appointed curator of the B. J. Hales Museum of Natural History at the University of Brandon in 1971. He had worked fastidiously since 1964 to establish a new home for the museum, and publicized it widely through his talks and writings.

In 1967, while still railroading, he fulfilled a request to write “The Life History of the Baird Sparrow,” which was published a year later in A.C. Bent’s classic, Life Histories of Sparrows (and other species). Also in 1967, he became a member of the prestigious American Ornithologists’ Union when he read a requested paper on “Hybridism of Bluebirds” based upon his observations of the mating of Eastern and Mountain Bluebirds on his nesting box trail. This was indeed a pioneering effort, since it was the first conclusive evidence of hybridism among bluebird species. His research in this area led to the discovery of bluebirds at least occasionally performing acts of polygamy. The implications of these observations remain subjects for further study.

In 1969 he received the Cliff Shaw Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to the journal, The Bluejay, published by the Saskatchewan Natural History Society.

In 1970 the Shikar Safari International Award was given to him as he was named The Conservationist of the Year.

1971 was the year the accolades poured in. Aside from his appointment as museum curator, he was acclaimedConservationist of the Year by the Manitoba Wildlife Federation. He was also presented with the Gold Medal of the Manitoba Historical Society for hrs contributions to teaching young and old about birds, and for his projects related to saving birdlife. Then, Mr.Lane became Dr.Lane. The faculty of Brandon University bestowed an honorary Doctor of Laws degree upon him.

In 1972 he was presented with the Manitoba Golden Boy Good Citizenship Award by Lieutenant-Governor McKeague.

Dr. John Lane had many hobbies. He boasted of one of the finest stamp collections in Manitoba. He handcrafted exquisite jewelry from his collection of rough stone agate and petrified wood. His wife displays their treasury of antiques, especially the glass lamps and bottles which permeate her home today. He took thousands of photographs of the flora and fauna along his nesting box trails, using inexpensive equipment in highly innovative ways. Above all, he kept watching the birds. He became the first person to sight and give positive identification to a Cattle Egret in western Canada. Along with two Junior Birders, he was the first Manitoban to collect a specimen of the Varied Thrush, normally a resident of the West Coast.

In 1968, Jack Lane retired from the Canadian Pacific Railway. He was still a young man at 65, a man with much work yet to do. But this “self-made” man, as the record shows, did not retire. He stepped up the pace. He continued lecturing, writing popular and scholarly articles, stocking the museum, educating the “professionals” who came to learn from him.

His death came as a shock to those who knew him well. Lane was rarely ill, and never complained about the rigor of his highly athletic life as “disciplined dilettante.” Like good wine, he got better with age. But his work and his enthusiasm continues. People throughout the region, from teenagers to the retired, still gather twice a year in the Lane home, and call themselves the Friends of the Bluebird. Nora coordinates the effort. She travels widely to tell her husband’s story.

Fred McGuiness brought Dr. Lane and his projects international prominence in his September 1973 Reader’s Digest tribute, “The Man Who Brought the Bluebirds Back.” He concluded his article by stating that “birdlovers everywhere will be grateful to him for bringing back the sight and song of the beautiful bluebird.”

Indeed we are.