The martins are gone. No goodbyes. No forwarding address. They just took wing and flew away. Their house looks a little forlorn, with just a random sparrow or two perched on the porch railings, where a few days ago the two pairs of adult martins and their well-grown offspring had all been jostling for the best perches on the roof. It made for a busy scene as one or another bird got edged off its spot and flew out and away and up and around and back, all the while chattering in their distinctive purple martin language. It had lifted my heart considerably to have them back after an absence of several years.
But let me back up a bit. For starters, my yard is ideal purple martin habitat — a flat, treeless plain. With plenty of weeds. Grasshoppers like weeds. Purple martins like grasshoppers. For breakfast, lunch and supper. When my parents moved onto this spot after several years in a fairly woodsy location at Hilltop Lakes (where they spent a lot of time watching deer and other wildlife visit their back yard) my mom decided they should have a martin house. A lot of people (like my mom) think martins eat mosquitoes, but they don’t. Other birds might, bats definitely do, but not martins. Still, having a little extra help with grasshopper control is good, too, whether you’re aware of it or not — which my folks weren’t, but that’s beside the point.
Anyway, my dad being my dad, he built the house for the martins. He didn’t go half measures, either. The house had 24 apartments, and was attached to a post that could be lowered every winter and the house taken off, cleaned out, and put in storage until spring. This was all to keep the pesky sparrows and starlings from moving in and making the place their slum. After my mom died, in 1989, the martin house never came down again. And the sparrows and starlings started taking over.
When I moved back home in 2002, I saw no martins move in the following spring. There were no vacancies. The place had taken on the appearance of a shabby old tenament, with faded, peeling paint, and last season’s nesting material overflowing out the doors. Pitiful.
Oddly, even though the upright had taken on a bit of a warp, and as a consequence the house leaned a bit to the south, it withstood our brush with Hurricane Rita in 2005. It came down that winter, all on its own. The upright failed under the weight of all that accumulated sparrow and starling crap one stormy night. It made a sad sight lying broken in the middle of the yard. By then my dad was past knowing or caring about it, so my brother and I just quietly cleared away the debris and dug up the foundation of the post.
I looked at martin houses on the internet, and couldn’t afford any of them. I knew I’d never get my brother to build one, so I just kept shopping around whenever I thought about it. I didn’t want to give up, because purple martins in this part of the country don’t even look for natural nesting sites any more. So many generations have been raised in artificial nests that they have come to depend on us to provide them. Finally, last year, I found a house I could afford at the local Tractor Supply center. It’s made of the same kind of plastic that a lot of dog houses are being made of, so it’s lightweight. And it has swing out panels on both sides so it’s easy to clean out. We just happened to have an old T.V. antenna pole just the right height and diameter to attach it to and set it up in about the same location as the old one. Disappointingly, no martins moved in. I wondered if our timing was bad or if for some reason martins disapproved of the material the house was made of. Maybe it smelled funny. The sparrows and starlings didn’t seem to mind, and several of them moved into one or another of the 12 apartments. When cold weather came on, though, we took the house down and I cleaned out all the old nesting material.
Whether spending a year out in the elements made the house lose its plastic smell, or we had better timing in getting it up this year, I was delighted to see the first pair of martins that did a fly-by wheel around and fly in for a closer look. By mid-June, I was pretty sure there were two pairs raising babies in the house, and they didn’t seem to be bothered that they were sharing the building with some sparrow families (I never saw any starlings around).
Before long, the young were all out of the nests, and the whole gang of them would try to perch on the same corner of the roof during the heat of the day. It made for considerable shifting and jostling around, and there was usually a bird or two in the air trying to fly in and land on the favored spot. Hopeless. I was glad, however, when I remembered that they would be leaving soon to migrate back to their winter range — it had to be getting scorching hot sitting on top of that house out in the middle of the prairie in the full sun. If they are going someplace even hotter, I wish them well. But now the Mexican Free-tailed bats are here, and if I remember to go outside right at sunrise and sunset, I can watch them skipping through the air chasing things I can’t see — hopefully mosquitoes. Now if I can convince my brother to put up a bat roost…