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Keeping up with the Martins

As long as I can remember, many of my friends, neighbors and relatives have done their best to attract birds. Not just any birds mind you, they’re after purple martins.

I’ve watched this practice for years, shaking my head in disbelief. Grown adults working hours and hours constructing ornate wooden houses in the hope that some feathered freeloaders might decide to take up residency.

You’ve got to admit, on the outside it does seem a little crazy. Sane people spending untold hours and dollars just to attract a bird that could care less about the decor of the dwelling.

My late father-in-law constructed a five-story condo just for martins. When it proved to be more appealing to sparrows, he went so far as to hot-wire the perches in an attempt to ward off unwanted guests.

Each year he would spend hour after hour of beautiful spring weather eyeballing his birdhouse in hopes “his” martins would return. Each fall, he would carefully lower the structure to the ground, cleaning and repairing it in preparation for the following spring.

What a waste of time and effort, I would think. Those birds probably laugh about their housing accommodations all the way up from South America each spring.

But that all changed when I received a packet of information from the Purple Martin Conservation Association.

Seems that it’s not just my friends, neighbors and relatives who have been putting up martin houses. So many people have been billeting the birds for so many years that they have completely changed their nesting habits.

According to one expert, the eastern race of purple martins is the only species of birds that no longer nest in the wild. That expert states, “Were it not for the assistance of martin landlords, who furnish them with housing, martins would no longer be able to reproduce and their populations would collapse.”

He continues by going back in history: “Originally, martins nested in old woodpecker cavities, but native American Indians discovered they could attract these insect-eating songbirds to their villages by hanging out gourds for them to nest in.”

The martins nesting in proximity to Indian villages reproduced in higher numbers because they were less susceptible to predation from hawks, owls, raccoons, snakes and other natural enemies.

Eventually, over several thousand bird generations, the entire species underwent a “tradition shift” and today, except for an extremely rare sighting, they no longer nest in the wild east of the Rocky Mountains.

Approximately one million folks still erect housing each year for martins and this has kept the birds’ numbers relatively stable for the past sixty years. However, a century ago flocks of martins were so thick they would “darken the sky.”

Judging from those I know who are martin lovers, no one needs to prod them into erecting houses - all they want are some martins who will accept their hospitality.

Martin housing should be placed well away from trees (at least 40 feet away), yet within 100 feet of a human dwelling. Experts still recommend white-painted gourds to attract martins.

Gourds? you ask. Sure, that’s what started the whole martin housing thing off in the first place. Why fix something that isn’t broken?

(Ed Rood is former publisher of Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live near Cambridge.)

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