London

91-year-old spends retirement building 900 birdhouses — and counting

George Adams wanted to keep busy in retirement. So he started building birdhouses. He's since put up hundreds and maintains them year-round.

'Mother Nature’s been pretty good to me all my life so I’m making a little effort to give some back'

91-year-old George Adams inspects one of his birdhouses — he's put up more than 900 of them on hydro poles around southern Ontario and maintains them throughout the year. 'It’s something to do. I don’t like sitting around doing nothing.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

It's only 10:30 in the morning but George Adams has already built three birdhouses. He may move slowly, but his process is smooth and precise. He knows when to shift from one power tool to another, or when to substitute a thick nail for an even thicker one that will "outlast him."

When he's done, he shuffles over and adds the newly finished birdhouse to the top of a precariously stacked tower of nearly identical copies, all ready to be placed outside.

What started as a retirement hobby has given the 91-year-old a purpose. He voluntarily puts up birdhouses on hydro poles on the roads around Huron County in southwestern Ontario — and maintains them throughout the year. At last count, there were more than 900, stretching as far south as London.

"Everyone said you can't put them on hydro poles," he said. "The first year, I put 25 up … nobody said a word. So we just kept putting them up." 

He marks each birdhouse with a check in a notepad. He doesn't record exact locations, just street names — he said they aren't hard to find if he knows how many he is looking for. He updates this list every year, as some birdhouses disappear or hydro poles are replaced.

Adams started marking birdhouse locations in 2001 but he's been building longer than that. 'Each mark is a birdhouse cleaned out.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Adams used the notepad this fall to visit every single birdhouse, getting them cleared out and ready for the spring. It took him about three weeks. Some days he would bring friends and family; other days, he did it alone.

On average, he would clean out between 50 and 100 birdhouses a day, but one day, he did 150.

He was pleased to find the birdhouses "99 per cent occupied."

How George Adams gets his birdhouses from workshop to hydro poles. 1:29

'Quit working, they'll put you in a box'

The birdhouse building started about 20 years ago when Adams retired from his beef farm. He was looking for something to do when he moved to tiny Brussels, Ont., 100 kilometres north of London.

He hated the thought of sitting around doing nothing.

"When you move, you've got to keep doing something. I have friends that moved into town and they really didn't do very much," he said. "If you quit working, they'll put you in the box."

Adams heads back to the car after checking on one of his birdhouses. He's careful not to put them on posts in ditches because over time, a ditch may become too steep for him. He prefers flat ground. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Adams has dabbled with many different birdhouse designs over the years but he's settled on his own, as others "just weren't as good."

His design is more elaborate than your typical birdhouse. Each one has an asphalt roof to keep any snow or rain out. The wood he uses is donated to him by his neighbours.

Liz Purves, the Ontario program director for Birds Studies Canada, a bird conservation and research group, says she's inspired by Adams' efforts and hopes others will be too.

While homemade birdhouses may be pretty common, "it's certainly not heard of anyone doing it at that scale," she said. 

Adams warns that placement is crucial. If you put it too close to a bush, 'the wrens will pack them full of sticks.' If they are too close to buildings, 'sparrows will get into them.' He makes sure to keep his birdhouses on the opposite side of the pole from 'where the snowplow comes' so the birds are protected. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Adams's work isn't just inspiring, it's actually helping tackle the problem of habitat loss, something Canada's bird population has been suffering for a long time. A September study estimated there are 2.9 billion fewer birds in North America now than there were in 1970.

"These types of nest boxes really do help local species," she said.

Adams has noticed fewer and fewer fenceposts for birds to rest on, part of the reason why he opted to build birdhouses.

"Mother Nature's been pretty good to me all my life so I'm making a little effort to give some back."

Carries half a dozen birdhouses in car

Adams has built hundreds of additional birdhouses for other people to put up on their own hydro poles. He sells them for $10, with all proceeds going to prostate cancer research.

"I carry half a dozen in the car with me all the time," he said. "Somebody needs a birdhouse, I've got one."

He underwent radiation for prostate cancer four years ago and has had a few friends die from it. Over the years, he's raised more than $10,000.

It takes Adams about 20 minutes to build a birdhouse. Over the years, he has tried out many designs. But he's settled on his own. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Adams plans to keep on doing this as long as he can. He has no succession plans in place to hand over the project.

He also builds wooden Muskoka chairs, barbecue scrapers and paper towel dispensers. To stay fit, he rides almost five kilometres every day on an ancient exercise bike in his basement, tracking his mileage on a wooden post which holds up the basement, noting every "100 miles" or 160 kilometres.

Adams makes sure to keep busy and stay active — that way he can keep building birdhouses. This includes biking five kilometres a day on a dusty old exercise bike and logging his distance on a wooden pole beside it. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"How long I'll be able to keep going, I wouldn't know," he said, of the birdhouse building. 

"I'm not too young anymore. At least, they'll be up there anyway."

George Adams wanted to keep busy in retirement. So he started building birdhouses. He's since put up hundreds and maintains them year-round. The CBC's Haydn Watters went to his workshop. 4:15

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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