Martins Flourish in the Face of Adversity
Gary Appleson
Alachua Audubon Society
This newspaper article originally appeared in the Gainesville Sun, date unknown.

It was a rough year for these birds: a new house in the eleventh hour, drought, fire. But they are survivors.

    On Feb. 6, I wrote to the Gainesville Sun about the loss of nesting sites for Purple Martins in downtown Gainesville. At the time, I reported that the railroad crossing guard poles at an intersection on University Avenue had been removed. The poles had been used for many years by Purple martins returning each year from South America.  The Sun prominently featured the article and, to my surprise, quite a few people responded with offers of help to provide an alternative nesting site for the birds. The folks at locally owned Tire Town donated the new 12-room martin house.  Boone Welding graciously constructed a mounting pole. Several other people provided the few remaining needed materials and offers for future supplies. Thank you all.

    Five days after the article appeared, my family and I were hoisting the new Purple Martin house 16 feet into the air, at that same intersection. We were advised that it was probably too late in the season and our martins may have already come and gone.  However, on Feb. 13, a male "scout" was observed sitting on the new house. Within several more days four more martins had taken up residency.  These almost certainly were from the Purple Martin colony of previous years.  It is also possible that these birds had been waiting in the area for their long-time residence to reappear. After all, it is no easy feat to attract Purple Martins, especially at such an inhospitable dry, hot, and noisy intersection.  And besides, my 5-year old daughter was convinced they would be back.

    For the next several weeks, as in years past, our family enjoyed these pleasantly noisy and social birds. We watched them on our forays to school, work, the grocery store, and back home.  Because they were most active in early morning and at dusk, we timed our drivebys accordingly, and enjoyed their silhouetted sleek forms against the early morning glow or the fading evening colors. Then, in May, the Village Traffic nightclub at the martins' intersection burned to the ground in a raging , pre-dawn fire. My daughter and I arrived at the scene at 7:30 a.m.  The martin house, surrounded by fire trucks and hoses, was engulfed in blowing, thick black smoke.  It was hardly visible from 20 feet away. I was sure the birds had abandoned their home or, worse, had been asphyxiated.

    Fully aware that the martins were low on everyone's list of priorities, we alerted the police officer directing traffic and the bulldozer crews cleaning up later in the day to the bird colony in the midst of all the chaos. When we went by at dusk, the martins were out gobbling bugs on the wing. In a protective gesture, yellow tape had been anonymously strung around their pole.  It was a rough year for these birds: a new house in the eleventh hour, drought and fire. But they are survivors. On June 11, I counted 13 martins. My best guess is that three nesting pairs of adults successfully raised at least seven new young. 

    The colony has now dispersed, probably foraging widely across our area. Sometime in late July or early August they will congregate in large roosts and again prepare to fly south. Next year, if all goes well, we may set up another house, not so close to that busy intersection. A nearby church has granted us permission to set up a house near their on-site retention pond. Some city employees have expressed an interest in trying to establish colonies along the abandoned railway, which will later be converted to an urban bike path. There are many reasons to anticipate the arrival of spring. Purple Martins simply add icing to the cake.

Gary Appleson is a board member of the Alachua Audubon Society.