Build a birdhouse with Donald

Text—Eugénie Emond
Photos—Catherine Bernier
Illustrations—Mélanie Masclé

The Knowledge of Our Grandparents

Our elders who have lived among nature their whole lives have more finely tuned intuitions than we do. But since we often cut ties with the elderly, many find themselves alone with a mountain of expertise and experience that they cannot share.

Before it’s too late, BESIDE wants to pass on the knowledge (and the stories) of four Québécois seniors over the age of 80. To do so, our contributor Eugénie Emond introduced us to four of her friends and the projects that keep them busy.


Donald Tremblay

Québec, 82 years old

Donald and his wife Ginette live on the deck of a ship: their eighth-floor apartment in a luxurious private residence for Québec seniors is full of seafaring artifacts. Near the window, a gleaming spyglass is pointed at the city stretched out below. An immense rudder upon which Donald has placed a round piece of glass serves as a table in the living room. On the walls are a sextant, a statue of a deep-sea diver, miniature schooners, and a painting of Flâneur II, Donald’s most faithful skiff. Many of the objects in this maritime museum were made and designed by Donald, like the two boat-shaped funeral urns on the very top of the bookshelf. Donald whittled them from a board taken from the shipwrecked Empress of Ireland, which he discovered in the waters off Sainte-Flavie in 1964.

When I arrive, the TV is tuned to the history channel and Chasseurs d’épaves (“Shipwreck Hunters”) is just starting. You can’t make this stuff up. Descended from a long line of sailors and captains of the Lower St. Lawrence River, Donald has been more or less exactly that: a shipwreck hunter. In 1950 the young ship mechanic decided to explore the sea floor. Cousteau had recently modernized diving gear, but scuba didn’t yet have many disciples in Québec. So Donald had equipment brought over from Europe and learned what he needed from a book. On his first dive with his tank into the icy water, he wore two pairs of jeans and an aviator jacket to protect himself from the cold.

Over time, Donald built himself a sideline as a professional diver. On weekends, he would lay dynamite for quays, search for the drowned, or cut cables caught up in propellers. Ginette would stay at home with their four children and worry herself sick. At 82 years old, Donald doesn’t feel any negative physical consequences from his years spent underwater. Quite the opposite: Donald credits the lifestyle for his iron constitution. He remembers that when he would go sailing with his father, they would draw their water supply directly from the St. Lawrence, which was especially polluted at the time—all the better for making antibodies.

Donald and Ginette moved into their seniors’ residence five years ago. Donald, who never thought he’d live to be so old, views these years as borrowed time. He brought his tools and demanded that a community workshop be set up in the basement, at the back of the underground parking garage. That’s where he made his urns. A self-taught tinkerer, there’s nearly nothing that Donald can’t make or fix. Residents ask him to repair various objects from time to time. In this era of planned obsolescence, his knowledge is worth its weight in gold.

— How to build a birdhouse —

Donald has made a few birdhouses over the course of his life. It’s a good activity to do with young people, or those who are new to DIY. Birdhouses can take many shapes, but if you’re hoping to see birds take up residence, here are some basic rules to follow.

Cut a ¾-inch thick wooden board into seven 6 by 6-inch pieces. You can use reclaimed wood as long as it hasn’t been painted and doesn’t smell too strongly, otherwise it will deter birds.

Screw five of the squares together to make an open box. Form the roof with the remaining two squares. Use screws rather than nails to make cleaning easier. This way, the bottom board can be unscrewed as needed. Do not use glue, as it won’t be sufficiently weatherproof.

Make a 1½-inch diameter hole in one of the walls. It must not be too big: larger birds and other predators should not be able to enter the birdhouse.

Cover the outside of the birdhouse with linseed oil. Do not paint the inside.

Screw a ring into the centre of the roof to hang the birdhouse outside.

Eugénie Emond is a freelance journalist and a Master’s student in Gerontology at the University of Sherbrooke. She is the creator of the documentary series En résidence, broadcast by MAtv. She also contributes to several media outlets, including the magazine Nouveau Projet.

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This article is featured in Issue 06.

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