Back to nature: Tour of the Ellis Bird Farm.

Last weekend, my hubby and I took the 160 kilometre drive north to the city of Lacombe, Alberta, where we spent the morning picking haskap berries (more about that to come!) and the afternoon touring the wonderful Ellis Bird Farm, a haven of naturescaping just a few clicks out of the city.

Originally from Parkenham, Ontario, the Ellis family came west in 1886, and settled outside of Calgary. Son John Ellis and his new wife Agnes started homesteading in the Lacombe-Joffre area in 1907, and after they passed away in the 1950s, their children Charlie (d. 1990) and Winnie (1905-2004) took over operations of the large farm.  The siblings were both naturalists, and sought ways to make the property more wildlife-friendly.  Charlie was particularly fascinated with birds, especially the mountain bluebird, and he started building nestboxes to attract and protect this native species. His plan worked: according to the Farm’s website, there was a single nesting pair of bluebirds on the Farm in 1956, when Charlie began his efforts, and by the late 1970s, there were 60. Today, the Farm boasts the largest concentration of mountain bluebirds anywhere in Canada. Of course, it can’t hurt that there are over 350 functional bluebird nestboxes on the property and more are being collected from all over the world.

Winnie planted several gardens on the property, designed to attract birds, pollinating insects, and other wildlife. On the day we toured, everything was looking a bit bedraggled due to a severe hailstorm the night before, but there was no denying the beauty and effectiveness of the plantings: birds, bees, and butterflies were flying everywhere around us!

(Credit:  Photos #4,6,7, and 11 by R. Normandeau)


A view near the water garden (not an original installation; it was built in 1995).  At the top right of the photo, you can see one of the structures from the petrochemical plant across the road.  MEGlobal Canada has provided funding to the Ellis Bird Farm since 2004.


Just a few of the bluebird nesting boxes onsite.


Another view of the water garden.  Notice the placement of the dead tree branches – perches for birds to rest or survey their surroundings.


You can see the evidence of the large hailstones that pierced the leaves of the water lilies.


Charlie Ellis and his father John built this private grain elevator in the 1920s.  There aren’t many of these farm elevators left in the country.  It is still fully functional, although not currently in use.  It was partly re-shingled in 1996; you’ll notice some of the new construction.


We saw so many birds at the Farm and I’m pathetic at birding – I had to enlist the assistance of the wonderful forum at Alberta Birds Facebook page to ID this barn swallow.   We did see quite a few purple martins, which was pretty exciting for me – apparently the Farm is participating in a geolocation program with these beauties.  The famous bluebirds are finished nesting for the season and weren’t anywhere to be found.


Where’s Mommy?  More importantly, where’s our food?


Nooks and crannies everywhere for the wildlife….


Winnie’s Butterfly Garden.


Another view of the Butterfly Garden.


Finally, what’s a farm without an adorable little piglet?  😉


If you’re ever in central Alberta during the summer, the Ellis Bird Farm is a must-see!  If you need any further encouragement, there is a tea house….  🙂


What have you done to make your garden more wildlife-friendly?




  1. Unfortunately I don’t live in Canada, else I would visit! It looks so lovely – doesn’t it warm your heart to know there are people like this and places like this, protecting our natural world! I enjoyed your visit to the farm – thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. I was back for my third visit to Ellis Bird Farm a couple of weeks ago. I truly love the place and it always makes me feel so at home with all the old farm buildings. Such a lovely way to spend a day! Thanks for sharing your pics.

  3. I love Ellis Bird Farm. I haven’t been for a few years, I even shot a wedding there once. I should really take the kids there this summer. Did they still have the bat houses and the sheep? Lacombe really suffered from the hail I hear, my husband (in roofing and exteriors) has been spending a lot of time out there this week estimating the damage.

    • Yes, the bat houses are still there, and so are the sheep and the goats. We really enjoyed our experiences there, it’s definitely a place we’ll go to again and again. 🙂

      That storm was brutal – there were so many downed trees and water all over. They really took the brunt of it out there – did you get the tail end of it, too? We’re having some stormy weather here right now, but more south of the city than in the north. What a wild summer, weather-wise!

      • We were at the cabin when that storm rolled through so we got the beginning which was just torrential rain, which is pretty normal up there. We got a doozy of a storm the next night though (again at the cabin), constant lightening from all sides, it sounded like we were under a wave, and we were sure the windows were going to blow in (but didn’t, thank goodness).

        My husband has been looking at the storm damage at Lacombe and in the north end of our city for work. He says the roofs have taken a beating and that siding is shredded. My flowerbeds took a beating, I must find hail resistant plants! LOL!

        Scary thing is August is yet to come and that is traditionally when a lot of the hail storms hit (hail is a big part of our lives due to hubby’s work!). I guess we aren’t out of the woods yet.

  4. How lovely to be able to visit this place. In Europe we hear so many bad things about American and Canadian lack of care for wildlife so it is rereshing to hear that there are initiatives to create wildlife friendly places, thank you.

    • I think (hope) that more and more organizations and people will take the initiative to create and promote natural areas across North America – it’s so important. The Farm is an amazing example of how it all positively comes together. 🙂

  5. Thanks so much for the introduction to Ellis Bird Farm; it’s so wonderful to have places that care for our birds and butterflies and nature. And I admire folk who have the vision to create these special spaces. But even if we can’t do anything as grand your final question reminds us that we can all make our own little contribution. Even the smallest contribution is valuable.

  6. Hi Sheryl,
    Looks like a lovely place and what adorable birds and piglet;0) great photos, alway inspiring to see other people gardens! I am so lucky that the previous owner of the garden was a birdlover: there shrubs to hide, trees to nest, flowers to attract inects, water fo drinking and bathing. Great pine trees too that attract the more rare crossbills. I would like to put some shrubs that cary berries and I am creating some ‘untidy’ spots with cut off branches etc. And lots of birdfeeders of course;0) Your garde must have much wildlife too?

    • I do plant for the pollinators, and I’ve been pretty happy with all the bees and butterflies that have stopped in. I don’t have much space, but I try! 🙂 That’s wonderful that your garden previously belonged to a bird lover (I remember the beautiful birdbath in your photos) – that gives you a good start to help attract birds! I love the idea of the cut off branches – I hadn’t thought much of that until I saw a few examples of it at the Farm.

  7. What beautiful pictures! The piglet is too cute, and that barn swallow … well, that’s an amazing shot – I think I’d be jumping somersaults if I got that one!
    Thanks for following my blog, and I can’t wait to see more of you lovely photos 🙂

    • Thanks so much…though I can only take credit for the flower photos on this particular post. 🙂 I usually take most of the photos on Flowery Prose, but sometimes my hubby helps out – he loves to take photos of animals and birds, in particular, and he snagged the awesome ones of the barn swallow and the sweet little piglet. That swallow was such a ham, he just sat there and posed like a model. 😉

      I’m so happy to have found your blog – I look forward to more of your posts! 🙂

  8. Lovely pictures, and right next to an industrial plant too! We live right next to the woods, so we don’t really need to encourage wildlife. We have bees in one roof, bats in another, birds nesting under the edge of the roof, and dormice in the shed! I do try and choose flowers the bees will like, and we mow infrequently, so they are enjoying clover and plaintain flowers at the moment. Despite all this wildlife, I am still hopeless at identifying birds too!

    • I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who can’t identify birds – I’m really trying, but it seems even trickier to tell bird species apart than flowers, LOL!

      From your blog posts and photos, I can tell that you’ve been very careful to transition your garden/wooded areas to benefit wildlife – that’s so wonderful! 🙂

  9. What a fab destination, thanks for sharing, I didn’t even know about it. My neighbour had a really big Purple Martin house in their yard at the lake. They used to swoop around our front lawn and chase the cat. The houses are pretty neat though. There’s this guy that sells really cool ones at the Sherwood Park Farmers Market. I tried to attract some nice birds to the condo area hear and hung out a peanut butter bark reader, but all that hung around was Magpies so I took it down cause they were driving me bonkers with the screeching. I’ll wait till I have a real yard.

    • Urggh, magpies can be such nuisances – we have a ton of them in our neighbourhood and they do harass the other birds. That’s so cool about the purple martin houses – I didn’t know that the birds could be a little on the aggressive side, though. I had never seen one until the weekend – they’re sure pretty.

  10. Wonderful place. It’s good they can keep this going near an industrial facility – I hope that doesn’t change. That picture of the chicks (purple martins?) waiting for their parents to arrive with food is priceless!

    • My hubby managed to catch the chicks at just the right time! He got another couple of shots with them and one of their parents, but the images were a tad blurry so I didn’t put them up. The little ones were so cute, just mouths and eyes, really. 🙂

      It is great that the petrochemical plant took an interest in assisting the Farm with their funding – that’s a partnership that makes a big statement.

  11. Oh I would love to visit this beautiful place….my bluebirds just fledged and are gone…robins and sparrows as well although the many broods of juvenile sparrows are still around the garden. We added a meadow, bird houses, a pond and I have been changing my gardens over to wildlife gardens by eliminating chemicals… and the use of many natives along with berry producing shrubs and nectar plants have made my garden a wildlife haven that is fun to be part of.

    • You definitely strive to make your garden a nature sanctuary – I can tell from all of your wonderful photos and blog posts! I think we definitely have to take wildlife into account no matter how large or small our gardens may be – there’s always a way to enhance our designs to be more friendly. You would love the Farm – it’s incredible! 🙂

  12. Fabulous tour, I’ve never heard of this place but it sounds wonderful. Birds and gardens go hand in hand. Now about those haskap berries, what do they taste like?? I keep hearing about them but nobody ever says how they taste!

    • The Farm is indeed a very special place!

      Haskap berries are highly recommended – they are incredibly juicy and soft and taste like a cross between a blueberry, a raspberry and a Saskatoon – but there aren’t any nutty “seeds” inside. A little on the tart side, considering they call them “honeyberries.” I’m a huge fan! 🙂

  13. I haven’t been able to the Ellis Bird Farm yet, but hope to soon! I’m so glad you were able to ID the Barn Swallow through Alberta Birds, if you need more help IDing birds, please don’t hesitate to post your photos.

    • Thanks so much, I appreciate all the help of everyone at Alberta Birds – what a great group! 🙂

      You would absolutely LOVE the Ellis Bird Farm, I hope you get a chance to go there one of these days.

    • Thank you! I wish I could have captured just how many nesting boxes there are on the property…I took some wider shots but I didn’t want to put up too many photos on the post. After I went to the farm, I found a mention online of a gentleman who lives about 100 km north of Calgary, who is collecting birdhouses (I’m not sure if they’re all bluebird nesting boxes, however). He supposedly has over 400 houses on his farm. That I would like to see!

  14. Love that photo of the barn swallow. Nice to see it up close as I only have two shots of swallows from about 15 feet away and you can’t see the lovely colours as well as your photo.

    Sounds like a wonderful place to visit (but a bit far for me from Melbourne, Australia).

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