By Alan Sorensen
Its been nearly 20 years since bluebird houses began appearing high on fence posts throughout the Bear Paw Mountains.
Today, many of those houses are still summer home to migratory bluebirds who live here from March to late October. Many others, however, are missing roofs, fronts or floors. Some are just a board nailed to a fence post as a reminder of the bluebirds who once raised their young there.
Charles W. Chuck Howard was the architect and builder of about 100 of the homes.
I started putting them up on Sucker Creek Road to start with, Howard said. Then I put some down at the Bullhook Road, then the Clear Creek Road, and the Big Sandy Creek Road all the up to the pass there.
Howards birdhouses also can be seen along Beaver Creek Road and along the road that runs along the east shore of Bear Paw Lake (Upper Lake).
Howard also made birdhouses for a group of women at Roy and others have been strung along the Milk River in North Havre. Some ended up in Cascade, too.
I didnt charge them for anything, Howard said.
Bluebird houses built by other amateur naturalists also dot the mountain valleys south of Havre. Howard said the houses are similar, but that his are a little taller than the others.
Howard became enthused about building the birdhouses when an article appeared in National Geographic at about the time of his retirement from the railroad 19 years ago. It was about how they were starting these bluebird trails in the United States, he said.
He devoted about 15 years to building the birdhouses to specifications described in the magazine article and putting up them up. Time goes by pretty fast, Howard said.
Howard built more than 100 of the houses until his health began to deteriorate about five years ago. Today, he said, his fingers have lost most of their feeling and his legs are too weak for hiking through the Bear Paw Mountains. Im not as healthy as I used to be.
For a number of years, Howard and his wife, Lucille, went to the mountains late in the fall and early in the spring to clean out the birdhouses. Howard, now 80, finds it difficult to take care of his creations. In recent years, the Howards were aided in their housecleaning trips by their daughter and son-in-law, Colleen and Jim Magera.
Even if theyre about, the bluebirds can be elusive and hard to spot. You have to be looking for them, Lucille Howard said, otherwise, you wont see them.
Over the years, the birdhouses have fallen victim to several forces of nature.
Sometimes cattle will rub them off the fence posts, Howard said. I even had guys come by and shoot them off with shotguns.
Still others have crumbled under the force of Montanas extreme temperatures and weather.
When he was still able, Howard would take his pickup out in the spring to clean the houses. Id always have a roll of baling wire in there so I could fix them up if anything was wrong, he said.
Howard said he would be happy if someone would adopt his birdhouse project. He doubts that will happen, though, because many of the birdhouses need to be repair or replaced. Cleaning out the birdhouses at least once and sometimes twice a year also takes a lot of time and energy.
I dont think youd ever find anybody, he said. Its a lot of work.