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Aerial BnB

Becoming a purple martin landlord

BY KATIE JACKSON

Beloved for their airborne antics and their bubbling, chattering conversation, these cavity-nesting birds enjoy — maybe even crave — human companionship. PHOTO BY MARK DAUBER

Home-stay networks such as Airbnb may seem like a new trend to us humans, but the idea of finding short-term, seasonal housing among a network of welcoming folks is old hat for purple martins, those boisterous aerial entertainers that have lodged with humankind for centuries.

Members of the swallow family, purple martins winter in South America (particularly in Brazil) but come to North America for summers to breed and raise their young. Beloved for their airborne antics and their bubbling, chattering conversation, these cavity-nesting birds enjoy — maybe even crave — human companionship, a tendency first noticed by early native Americans who strung hollowed-out gourds around their camps to draw in these gregarious birds.

That practice was adopted by European settlers and continues today among a group of people known as purple martin landlords. Landlords provide rent-free housing that, it turns out, is more than hospitality; it’s vital to the purple martins’ long-term survival. According to experts, purple martins that summer in the eastern U.S. rely almost entirely on human-made nests.

In return, the landlords get to enjoy hours of entertainment as the birds swoop and chatter around them. That kind of entertainment is so addictive that most landlords await the annual late-winter to early spring arrival of their beloved birds with great anticipation. Take Ronald Brantley, for example.

“When they first come here in February or March and I walk out of the house and all the sudden they start fussing saying ‘Hey fella, I’m back again’ — that’s a big thrill,” said Brantley, a highly successful Elmore County purple martin landlord.

Brantley discovered the joys of purple martins four decades ago when he moved to his farm on County Road 44 between Tallassee and Eclectic. The farm’s previous owner had erected eight purple martin gourds there and Brantley so enjoyed his annual visitors (the birds often return to the same site year after year) that he began expanding the neighborhood, which today includes 120 gourds, which fill up every year and fill Brantley’s days with delight. “I don’t know if I could live without them,” he said.

Though Brantley has had great success as a landlord, not all who try to attract purple martins can say the same. In fact, many people have followed every recommendation for purple martin stewardship to the letter and failed to attract a single bird.

“I think people try to get too scientific with them,” says Brantley, who believes that, rather than trying to follow rules, folks should just give the birds what they want and need: a nice safe place to live, access to water, room to fly and companionship.

Safe homes and open spaces

Pair of Purple Martins busy keeping their young chicks fed with insects.

Housing options can range from swanky purple martin “apartments” or “motels” to modest, time-honored gourds, sometimes painted white to deflect heat. To ensure the birds feel safe and secure, those houses should be mounted on a pole, crossbar or cable elevated several feet off the ground.

According to Brantley, and contrary to what many people believe, the houses don’t have to be pointed in a certain direction or hung at a set height: as one landlord put it, the trick is to make them high enough so the birds feel safe but low enough so we humans can enjoy them.

Purple martins do require two specific things, however: a broad expanse of open space (hayfields, lawns and meadows, for example, where they can feed on the wing and dive and soar to their heart’s content) and a permanent source of water such as a pond, lake, creek, river or marshy area.

Oh, and there is one other vital need to both attract and keep purple martins — human company, or at least activity. According to Brantley, purple martins truly want to be around people and will abandon nesting sites if humans move away.

Brantley’s farm certainly provides those three specific needs — lots of open space, a nearby fishpond and plenty of activity as Brantley goes about his daily work and admires his fine feathered boarders. Brantley also provides his tenants with simple but well-kept housing, in his case natural, unpainted gourds strung on a cable.

Waiting to greet, then saying goodbye

It may not be scientific, but it works.

“I have not had a single martin come by me and complain,” he says. “They just go in there, and I generally have a full line of martins every year.”

For Brantley, the hardest part of being a purple martin landlord may be in the waiting for his purple martins to arrive and the hating to see them go.

“I’ve had them come in as early as Valentine’s Day and as late as the 23rd or 24th of March,” he says, noting that in recent years they have been leaving earlier and earlier. “When I first started, they never left before September but lately I’ve had them leave by the end of July.”

While the purple martins are in residence, though, Brantley thoroughly enjoys them. “I love to watch them and see all their different colors,” he says. “And they just fuss, oh my goodness they fuss. And when they start raising those little babies and bring food to them, it’s just out of this world. You should see it for yourself.”

In fact, Brantley is always happy to let people see it for themselves. Just give him a call at 334-301-0125. Of course those who can’t make it to Brantley’s farm can still learn about these birds and purple martin landlording through the Purple Martin Conservation Association, Wild Birds Forever, or the Alabama Cooperative Extension System publication Attracting Purple Martins.

 

Purple martins facts

  • Purple martins (Progne subis) belong to the swallow family and, like their fellow swallows, are swift, bold flyers who feed on the wing, darting and swooping after insects in delightful and dazzling aerial displays.  They’ve been clocked at 40 miles per hour in flight.
  • Their name comes from the lustrous blue-purple to black feathering that adult males display, which can look black when they are in flight. Female and juvenile male purple martins tend to have duller brown-toned feathers with traces of blue.
  • The tail of purple martins is forked and their wings are long and tapered.
  • Purple martins, which winter in South America and fly north in the spring to nest and raise their young, are cavity nesters and the birds that migrate to the U.S. East Coast are almost entirely dependent on human-provided nesting sites.
  • Purple martins often return to the same breeding spot each year and may even nest in the same gourd or room of a purple martin apartment house each year.
  • The greatest threats to purple martins are European starlings and the house sparrows, which can aggressively attack or kill purple martins as they compete for nesting sites. Snakes, raccoons, hawks, owls, squirrels and feral cats are also a threat to purple martins.

How to make and hang purple martin gourds

  • Using dried gourds that are about 8 inches in diameter and 6 inches tall, cut a 2- to 4-inch hole in a location 1 to 2 inches above the gourd’s base. (Purple martin landlord Ronald Brantley uses a doorknob saw for this).
  • Remove all seeds and dried pith from the gourds and clean off any black mold that may have grown on the gourd.
  • Drill ¼-inch holes in the base of the gourds for drainage.
  • Paint or varnish the gourds if you want to, though Brantley says the birds don’t seem to care and his unpainted gourds last about three years before they need replacing.
  • Hang gourds from a cable or on poles at a height of 8 to 15 feet above the ground.
  • Locate the gourds in a fairly open area near a grassy space (lawn or meadow). The birds also need access to a nearby and permanent supply of water (stream, pond, river or wetland).
  • Take the gourds down the fall after the martins have left for the year, clean out any old nesting material and store the gourds in a dry space for use the following year.