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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.

Turn the page

Alabama authors share tips from a lifetime of writing

BY EMMETT BURNETT

Alabama writers inspire us with page turning tomes, fiction and fact, essays and novels. Their prose radiates across the state, America, and for many, the world. Here are eight authors, columnists, journalists, and more – men and women of Alabama who have some words of wisdom for other aspiring writers.

Winston Groom

In the 1980s, Winston Groom visited his father in Point Clear, Ala., for lunch and reminiscing. “Dad recalled a young retarded man he knew, born about 1960,” Groom recalls. “Kids chased and ridiculed the boy. But the loving mom taught her son to play beautiful piano music.” Groom thought, “Maybe I can use dad’s description in a book.” He called it, Forrest Gump.

“It just flowed, almost like it wrote itself,” the Mobile-born author remembered. “I have never had that happen before and don’t think I will again.” The 1986 novel was made into an Academy Award-winning movie in 1994.

It started with a leap of faith.  After a successful journalism career with the Washington Star, Groom resigned and moved to New York to write books. “It was a bold move, because I burned bridges,” he says. “If it didn’t work out, I knew I’d be too embarrassed to return.”

His latest book is the historical epic, El Paso, published in 2016. Now back in South Alabama, Groom says to aspiring writers, “Take that leap of faith. Tell yourself, I can do this. I will do this. I must do this. And just do it.”

 

Jeanie Thompson

Decatur-raised Jeanie Thompson is a poet, author, teacher, director of the Alabama Writers Forum, and founding executive director of the Black Warrior Review literary journal. She is also, as she puts it, “a survival writer.”

“I find the time and way to write,” she says. “If I could spend two hours a day writing, I would. But my work life doesn’t make it possible. Generally, I write in concentrated amounts of time.”

During those “concentrated amounts of time,” Thompson has produced many works, including her latest, The Myth of Water, a collection of poetry through the voice of Helen Keller. It has been choreographed by Adria Feralli (Florence, Italy) and performed at Troy University.

Her writing tips? “Read – and don’t read works of people your own age or no better than you,” she adds. “Study the great writers. Take classes. Don’t work in a vacuum. If you want to be a great guitarist, listen to great guitar players, not someone no better than you. The same goes for writing.”

 

Frye Gaillard

Mobile’s Frye Gaillard came of age in the civil rights era. In the mid 1960s he attended Vanderbilt University, with the first class of African-American undergraduates. He wrote about race relations, civil rights, and Southern issues.

In the 1970s he became the Southern Editor for The Charlotte Observer. “I discovered I loved the journalistic process and asking people to share their lives with me,” he said. One of the most famous was dead.

Gaillard covered Elvis Presley’s funeral, standing at the King of Rock and Roll’s open casket. “I talked my way to Graceland’s front of the line and took notes as people passed the coffin,” he recalls. “There were 80,000 in line.”

A writer in residence at the University of South Alabama, Gaillard today has a stream of award winning titles, including Go South to Freedom.

He advises others interested in the business, “Pick writers you like, whose words and ideas move you. Find what they do that works. And as they say in the commercials, ‘Just do it.’”

 

Rick Bragg

A former New York Times journalist from Piedmont, Ala., Rick Bragg has shared stories and taught his craft at Harvard University, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Boston University, the University of South Florida, and currently, the University of Alabama. But the author of best-selling memoirs, including All Over But the Shoutin’, says he learned from the best – childhood memories of the Appalachian foothills.

Bragg credits growing up in Alabama with his success. “I learned to listen to tales of the old people, pulp wood workers, Coosa River fishermen, chainsaw operators, cotton mill workers, and sweat shop laborers,” he says. “I have covered and written about Asia, the Middle East and all over the U.S., but the people of home who slung wrenches and picked cotton were among the best stories.”

The colorful imagery of Alabama mountain people inspired Bragg, but he tells other writers to develop their own voice. “Follow your footsteps,” he says, “and read. Reading helps you develop an ear for what sounds good. For me, it was writing about Alabama’s working people. I wanted to tell their stories. Find what works for you and do it.”

 

Homer Hickam

“One day you might make your living as a writer,” Homer Hickam’s third-grade teacher told her student. And Homer thought, “Why wait? I need the money now.” With a borrowed church mimeograph machine, the youngster printed a newspaper. Over the years, his career path changed. The writing passion did not.

In the late 1960s, after earning an engineering degree and Vietnam military service, the Coalwood, W.Va.-raised young man moved to Huntsville, working as a NASA engineer. “But something was missing in my life,” he recalls. Writing.

An avid diver, Hickam started freelance writing for SCUBA magazines and about sea adventures. Nautical and diving topics inspired his first book, about a German U-Boat in American waters, Torpedo Junction. He is a writer of memoirs (Rocket Boys was adapted into the movie, “October Sky” in 1999), historical fiction, and 18 books, including his recent, Carrying Albert Home.

Asked who is his favorite author is, Hickam replies, “I am! I love to read what I write but the hard part is, I have to write before I can read it.”

His tells followers, “Write. Even when you don’t feel like it, write.  You have got to do it. Put it on paper. Most new writers give up. I count on that.”

 

Hardy Jackson

Hardy Jackson has authored or co-authored 15 Southern history books, including 2012’s The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast. He is an award-winning columnist for the Anniston Star and Alabama Living magazine with a statewide following, and professor emeritus of history at Jacksonville State University.

“I was blessed to have parents big on books,” he says. “And teachers made us write in school. I enjoyed doing it, especially sending notes to girls.”

Jackson is often asked how he finds ideas to crank out a column every week.  “Things just strike me,” he says. “I write about topics that strike my fancy and I guess I’ve got a pretty good fancy.”

And for writing books, he adds, “I see history as a narrative, not names, dates, people, and time. You learn to know who you write about. You see their handwriting, read their letters, and are exposed to their likes and hates.”

He advises others: “Write, read and revise and learn the value of criticism. Writers cannot be thin-skinned. But so many are.”

 

Ace Atkins

Award winner and Troy, Ala., native Ace Atkins is considered one of the best crime writers working today. It comes with experience, in part, gleaned from years as a Tampa Tribune journalist and crime beat reporter. And it comes from talent.

“You don’t get the pulse of a community until you write about the bad stuff that happens,” says Atkins, now living in Oxford, Miss. “Covering crime stories, I’ve been in a lot of police stations and eaten a lot of donuts.”

He believes regardless the characters – bad guys, hunters, ministers, or whoever – good research is vital. Atkins notes, “The only way to get it right is to hang out with the folks that do it.”

The author of 19 novels, including The Innocents, concedes, “Writing can be tough. There’s a difference between people wanting to write stories and people wanting to be professional writers. The latter doesn’t wait for opportunity to knock. You can’t wait for the muse to come through. Some days are exhilarating, others, frustrating. But push through. It separates pros from the amateurs.”

 

Sena Jeter Naslund

Sena Jeter Naslund recalls a life-changing experience, growing up in Birmingham. “I was age 10 in an un-air conditioned house, on a 95-degree steaming summer’s day,” she says. “I was reading a Laura Ingalls Wilder book about winter, and shaking cold, but why?” And the future New York Times best seller realized, “It was these words!”

One day she wanted to have word power too. Seven books, short stories, and other collections later, she does. The author of Ahab’s Wife and Four Spirits starts her day reading and revising. “It revitalizes me,” she says. “I return to the time and place I’m writing about.”

Her stimulus comes from research, talent, and dark chocolate. “I keep a huge supply,” she laughs. “If I need inspiration, a few bites of dark chocolate helps.”

But forget the glamorous writer’s life myth. She explains, “Sometimes words flow easily. Much of the time, it is difficult. Believe in yourself, be open to criticism, and find a day job.”

Events for literary lovers

Want to meet writers, hear some stories and support Alabama’s literary scene? Make plans to attend the Alabama Book Festival, which is coming up on April 22 in Old Alabama Town in Montgomery.

Among the authors scheduled to appear are Winston Groom and Frye Gaillard (see story).

Thousands of literary fans from around the state and the Southeast gather at the festival each year to meet authors and scholars, attend workshops and discover vendors and exhibitors.

For more information, visit www.alabamabookfestival.org, or call 888-240-1850.

 

Also coming up is the Alabama Writers Symposium in Monroeville, April 20-21. The annual symposium is a gathering of Alabama writers and scholars for readings and performances.

This year’s highlights include keynote speaker Yaa Gyasi, author of Homegoing, and recognition of Brad Watson, winner of the Harper Lee Award, and Michael Knight, winner of the Truman Capote Award. For more information, visit www.writerssymposium.org or call 251-575-8271.

Healthy Living

Randolph county residents send a loud message

BY DALE QUINNEY

Residents of Randolph County, areas of which are served by Tallapoosa River Electric Cooperative, face challenges to their future like those faced by most rural Alabama residents.  The 2010 Census revealed that the county’s population was less than it was in 1910.  Of even greater concern was that population projections through 2040 indicated that the loss in population would continue.  If population loss continues, where will the youth of Randolph County find employment?

Most of Alabama’s rural counties share this concern over population loss. Twenty-four rural Alabama counties have less population in 2010 than they had in 1910.  Forty-one of Alabama’s 67 counties are projected to lose population between 2010 and 2040.

Health care is an economic engine, producing jobs and economic opportunity.  The presence of a hospital acts like a magnet in attracting other health care service to the area.  The Economic Development Association of Alabama has struggled to attract new businesses to communities that do not have adequate health care.

The new Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama is under construction in Wedowee, thanks to county residents approving a one-cent sales tax in 2016

Randolph County lost one of its hospitals, the Randolph Medical Center in Roanoke, in 2011. The lone remaining hospital, the Wedowee Hospital, had been constructed in 1953.  A new facility was sorely needed.  Tanner Health System of Carrollton, Ga., was managing the hospital and was willing to provide funds for equipping a new hospital, if county residents could provide construction funding.

Funding by the county posed a challenge.  Randolph County residents already had a property tax designated for the county’s health care.  Unfortunately, due to the poor performance of an existing retirement fund, most of these funds had to be directed to keep the retirement plan afloat.  In addition, the county had the usual rivalry between communities that exists in most rural counties.

A one-percent sales tax was proposed to raise county funds for hospital construction.  Would the residents of Randolph County look at the future and pass this tax in August 2016 to build a new hospital to provide local health care, care for those traveling through or visiting the county, and to compete for future economic development?  Would they be disturbed by the fact that the first health care tax was not being used for its designated purpose and refuse to support a second tax?

After an actively debated campaign, 86 percent of the voters in Randolph County did approve this second health care tax to build a new hospital. At a time when voters want no part of new taxes, this sent a loud message.  When people see that a new tax is in their own, their children’s, and their grandchildren’s best interests, they will accept new taxes.  A large part of the debate centered on assurances that the new taxes would be used wisely.  There appears to be a strong relationship between willingness to pay taxes and feeling that tax dollars are not being wasted.

In November 2016, the voters of Randolph County responded again by approving a half-percent sales tax to build a new jail.  The jail was seriously undersized and outdated.  This preemptive action probably avoided unnecessary expenses, such as legal fees, that would have followed taking no action.

 

Dale Quinney is executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, 1414 Elba Highway, Troy, 36081.

Social Security

BY KYLLE’ MCKINNEY

At first, seeing taxes taken out of your paycheck can be a little disappointing. However, you can take pride in knowing you’re making an important impact each week when you contribute to Social Security. Understanding how important your contribution is takes some of the sting away because your taxes are helping millions of Americans — and protecting you and your family for life — as well as wounded warriors, the chronically ill, and disabled.

By law, employers must withhold Social Security taxes from a worker’s paycheck. While usually referred to as “Social Security taxes” on an employee’s pay statement, sometimes the deduction is labeled as “FICA” which stands for Federal Insurance Contributions Act, a reference to the original Social Security Act. In some cases, you will see “OASDI” which stands for Old Age Survivors Disability Insurance.

The taxes you pay now translate to a lifetime of protection — for retirement in old age or in the event of disability. And when you die, your family (or future family) may be able to receive survivors benefits based on your work as well.

Because you may be a long way from retirement, you might have a tough time seeing the value of benefit payments that could be many decades in the future. But keep in mind that the Social Security taxes you’re paying can provide valuable disability or survivors benefits now in the event the unexpected happens. Studies show that of today’s 20-year-olds, about one in four will become disabled, and about one in eight will die, before reaching retirement.

Be warned: if an employer offers to pay you “under the table,” you should refuse. It’s against the law. They may try to sell it as a benefit to you since you get a few extra dollars in your pay. But you’re really only allowing the employer to cheat you out of your Social Security credits.

If you’d like to learn a little more about Social Security and exactly what you’re building up for yourself by paying Social Security taxes, look at our online booklet, How You Earn Credits, at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10072.html.

You can also learn more at www.socialsecurity.gov.

Kylle’ McKinney, SSA Public Affairs Specialist, can be reached by email at kylle.mckinney@ssa.gov.