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Mother-daughter duo create one-of-a-kind birdhouses

A Northern Alberta mother-daughter pair are making sustainable little homes for the birds from nature's scraps.

Two St. Albert artists are partnering with nature to build and decorate birdhouses. Their creativity is limitless, and the business has grown wings. 

That Garden Witch started as a fun, family-bonding project. For Jennifer Galea and her mother, Silva, building birdhouses developed from recycling wood scraps into awe-inspiring nature art. As in nature, no two birdhouses are identical. Despite the different shapes, each house blends human artistry and architecture with environmental sustainability. 

Silva and her husband Dave Galea, formerly of St. Albert, now make their home on 40 treed acres in the hamlet of Glenevis, about 70 kilometres west of St. Albert. As trees fell on the acreage from natural causes, Dave, an avid woodworker, bought a mill and sawed slabs of wood. 

“Dad made a bed and a dresser for me. You name it, he could build it,” said Jennifer, who resides in St. Albert and has made her garage a crafter’s nest of birdhouse creations. 

Staunch conservationists dedicated to re-purposing deadfall, Silva and Dave built a cottage on their property next to their home so the grandkids could visit throughout the summer. 

“We used woodcuts for siding, lots of little pieces from ends that we couldn’t use otherwise,” said Silva, the family's artistic designer. In the duo’s partnership, Jennifer is a self-declared “worker bee” who saws wood pieces and finishes small details. 

The Galea family always made it a priority to be surrounded by the avian population, and two years ago, the decorative structures were launched as an experiment. 

“I picked up a chunk of wood, looked at it, and said, 'This could be a birdhouse.' Now we have a whole city,” Jennifer said. 

“At first we would give them away until we ran out of family and friends to give them to,” said Silva with a laugh. She keeps a birdhouse bonanza of 30 scattered throughout the acreage while Jennifer straps 10 to her backyard fence.  

The duo crafts whimsical architectural styles in both contemporary and rustic motifs. They look like buildings people might want to live in. One resembles a witch’s house made of cookies. Another appears to be zapped from Hobbit world. Yet another is reminiscent of a painting. 

“I won’t tell you what a birdhouse is supposed to be. I want you to look at it and let it speak to you,” said Silva, who added the houses' holes fit wrens, sparrows, and chickadees. 

In addition to building a structure, the duo reuses nature-provided decorations: moss, stones, pine cones, willow pieces, and a dry wasp’s nest. 

The entire family, grandchildren included, often traipse about the acreage searching for nature’s gifts. Despite the fun, sometimes the Galeas suffer for their art. 

“Our hardest thing was finding a wasp nest that wasn’t dead. We thought the nest was empty, but it wasn’t. I walked up to it, and it was in attack mode. I got stung three times,” Jennifer said. “It was up high, and Dad shot it down. It was not empty and there was a lot of running and screaming.” 

When Silva develops a design idea, she doesn’t use pre-conceived notions. She prefers to let the wood and nature’s accessories speak to her. 

“My grandchildren inspire me. They bring me things and it’s up to me to make them.” 

The houses’ walls, floors, and roofs are cobbled together from three-quarters to one-inch wood cuts and then sanded roughly. The design is sketched and Jennifer saws the wood cuts with a band saw. 

“You have to be careful not to hit knots. If you do, it could break the saw or the wood.” 

The pre-fab houses are then glued, nailed, stained, and treated with a light coating of Varathane to protect them from elements. The final touches are moss, feathers, miniature stones, or twigs cut into the size of nickels — whatever feels right and creates a one-of-a-kind look. 

Although each birdhouse requires hours of work to complete, they sell for only $30 to $100 depending on size. 

“It’s difficult to put a price on things but I want them to be affordable,” Silva said. 

Both women treasure the bond they share, saying it far outstrips the value of money. 

“I like working with Jennifer. I show her what I do, and she can continue showing it to her kids. It’s part of my legacy," Silva said.

An emotional Jennifer added, “In doing this I will always have a piece of my mother." 

That Garden Witch is accessible through Facebook.