March 25, 2016. Good Friday. Distinctive chatter welcomes me to Heart & Sole Gardens. Martin scouts circle overhead. Purple Martins, that is. Migratory birds we regard as pets claim the gourds we provide for them to nest and raise their young. After an annual flight from South America, taking as long as six weeks and covering as many as 5,000 miles, this is no small feat. As long-time Purple Martin hosts, we anticipate the scouts’ arrival as eagerly as the harvest of summer’s first ripe heirloom tomato. Perhaps, even more so.
Purple Martins eagerly explore summer homes
Foregoing the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers translates to providing a garden habitat that encourages insects, reptiles, mammals and birds to linger and feast upon organic bounty. Adding composted manure to soil helps earthworms as they tunnel through miles of earth, aerating ground and depositing nutrient rich castings. Seedlings thrive, enticing deer and groundhogs, those eating machines, to munch tender foliage and stems. Blossoms open and invite a medley of winged pollinators that complete plants’ sexual acts and result in fruit and vegetables that feed humans, insects and animals. In a garden, Life and Death coexist, constant mortality reminders for the gardener. Within this intricate food chain, birds assist farmers as they devour insect pests. At Heart & Sole Gardens, we nurture Purple Martin families and delight in their aerodynamic antics as much as we appreciate their insect control.
Social birds, Purple Martins often engage human workers with song. Swooping low over my head, they frequently lure me close to the tall poles that hold their gourds and serenade with a lilting voice for as long as I linger. When my mimicking efforts elicit response, it is interaction that pleases us all. After years of attentive listening, I quickly recognize a Martin distress call and often help shoo predatory hawks, watching a group of Martins chase the marauders into the distance and observing the return flight, which often includes “wing bump” celebrations. Useful and entertaining, Purple Martins bring joy and happiness to weary farm workers and their late summer departure leaves a quiet sadness in the air.
While plastic homes are available for purchase, our Purple Martins seem to prefer gourds
While they are in residence, Purple Martins enjoy the work of our old Blue Ford tractor as it tosses bugs and sends flying insects into the air. Long before the tractor enters a field, its rumbling approach signals Martins and they eagerly line the poles that hold their homes, their animated chatter filling the air. As soon as the tractor lumbers through dense weeds, the Martins descend, swooping low over the driver’s head and almost touching the earth as they dip into the machine’s wake.
No lengthy journey can be without peril. Bearing evident scars, one Martin scout, the first to arrive and claim housing for a colony, sported a damaged wing and a deep “V” marked missing feathers. Since he instantly engaged me with his chatter, I believed him to be a previous Heart & Sole resident and, throughout the summer, he never failed to greet me at the farm, often pausing to rest and sing for me while I worked. With his in-charge attitude, I dubbed him “Chief” and enjoyed his exuberant joy as much as he seemed to enjoy his temporary abode. The damaged wing did not slow his flight and he zoomed as quickly as any Martin, snatching mid-air treats with the precision of a bat and diving from great heights to settle on the metal pole, inviting me to take a water break and enjoy his cheery song.
While it is impossible for me to recognize individual Martins by sight, the damaged wing identified Chief and I often enjoyed his presence. Martins frequently entertain and visitors from other colonies regularly swooped by, but Chief flew closer to me than any other bird and lingered much longer than any of his kin. With an obvious handicap, I worried about his return flight, but throughout the entire summer, he never showed signs of weakness or disability.
July 13, 2016. My farm journal includes this note: Three Martins, one with damaged wing, Chief, chattered and visited. Late for them! On July 15, 2016, I recorded my last Martin sighting, two females or juvenile males, it is difficult to distinguish the two, and wondered if Chief were journeying to South America. I sent him prayers for safe travels and healing vibes for the damaged wing, along with hopes for his safe return in 2017.
In mid-August, our friend, Gary Greer, used his Bobcat machine to lower our Purple Martin gourds so we could clean and repaint them in preparation for next year’s arrivals. Nestled inside one gourd was a dead bird. Adult. Mature. Male. No apparent injury and hot, dry summer weather left him intact, his deep purple plumage iridescent in afternoon sunlight when I carefully removed him and cradled him in my hand. Almost as weightless as a single feather, his wings were tightly tucked and I considered pulling them from his body, just to be sure there was a missing feather, but I resisted. In my heart, I knew this bird, could hear his lively chatter in my memory, see his head cock as he listened to my rudimentary attempts to mimic his song. Chief.
Did he know he would be unable to make the return journey to his winter home? Did his companions linger to keep him company until the last possible moment? Did he know how he brightened my days? Was his a painless death? Lightly stroking his beautiful body, I tearfully pondered these questions.
We placed him in our home’s pet cemetery, alongside Boykin Spaniels, Dixie and Chipper, felines, Tiger and ‘Possum, and almost-wild bunnies, Hoppy and Thumper, with prayers of thanksgiving for his life. As beneficial birds go, he was a champ.