zellieearnestIf there was a title for Greenbelt patriarch, we might give this distinction to Zellie Earnest.

From Christmas trees to bluebirds, Zellie’s attention to detail has helped  The Greenbelt evolve to what it is today for the citizens of Kingsport and the wildlife – especially the bluebirds.

It was Zellie’s grandfather who taught him how to spot a bluebird nest among old fence posts and ever since, he’s had an lifelong interest with Nature.

With the warm voice of a seasoned story-teller, Zellie talks about how he came to Kingsport in 1961 with a baby on the way and began to work at Tennessee Eastman.

He remembers then mayor Hunter Wright talking about The Greenbelt.

“He was my neighbor and lived right across the street while I was in graduate school. It was then I heard Hunter talking about building the Greenbelt. I called him up and said why don’t you take old Christmas trees and place them along the trail. A couple of days later, that was 24 years ago now, somebody called and asked me to be on the Greenbelt committee.”

He continued, “Of course come to find out Christmas Trees don’t grow too well along The Greenbelt because of the wetlands.”

It was long until Zellie’s love for bluebirds turned into a movement. He was already at work building birdhouses and providing the habitat for birds along the trail. To improve the conditions, it was important for him to monitor the houses and gather data about the fledgelings, so he started to recruit from anywhere he could.

Although the Kingsport Bluebird Society is technically a one-man show, Zellie started to hold regular / informal programs to teach others about bluebirds in hopes of attracting similar interest and more important birdhouse monitors.

Speaking about his first efforts, “I was thinking no-one would show up, but I was surprised from some of my early programs which attracted close to 100 people.”

Since then, Zellie and others have been monitoring Greenbelt bluebirds for over 15 years. They’ve collected lots of data and followed some of the science and best practices obtained by others. This information and attention to the best birdhouses to attract the right kind of birds – under the best conditions to repopulate the bluebirds in our region.

One of the most important aspects of attracting bluebirds is the proper placement and design of a birdhouse. Over the years, the research and information Zellie has gathered positions him as a local expert in what works and what doesn’t when it comes to raising these colorful songbirds.

One of the more popular bluebird houses is the Peterson Box developed by Dick Peterson from Minnesota. You’ll see many of those boxes hand-crafted by Zellie all across the Greenbelt. Over the past several years, there are over 15 boxes like this on the trail.

One of the most radical changes to the Peterson Box was the adoption of the Gillwood Box by Eastern Bluebird societies because of its protection from light and sun.

For me personally, Zellie will long be remembered because before we left from this interview – he gave me that Gilwood Box and it will be one of the first things I place in the yard of my new house.

If you see a bluebird or house along the trail, Zellie has been involved. If you meet him on the trail or for that matter, see him anywhere in Kingsport, there’s a good chance he’ll ask you to monitor a house and if you’re lucky, he’ll make you a house to monitor. That’s where his hearts at – sharing his knowledge and love of these beautiful birds to our community for years to come.