If you hang a gourd, they’ll come
by Hugh Frank Smith
So you martin landlords thought America’s most wanted bird could eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day. And you thought scouts fly up from South America as early as February, select a nesting site, then fly back and bring their friends to the colony they have chosen?
Poppycock, says James McIntosh of Dallas, who read my recent guest column about martins and how I had failed to attract them to my Germantown farm despite its first-rate facilities. McIntosh called himself “a five-year purple martin landlord . . . who gives educational programs about them.”
As for scouts returning to Brazil, he said: “Biologically, this is impossible and would be counterproductive to the martins’ survival. Think of the wasted energy it would take to migrate across the Gulf, fly back to South America, then back to the states.”
He added: “Martins do not eat 2,000 mosquitoes a day. Scientific studies have shown that mosquitoes, at best, make up only 3 percent of a martin’s diet.
“Once martins have nested successfully at a site, they usually return year after year,” he said. “The young fledged from the colony site will return to the same vicinity the next year. Adult martins are the first to arrive from South America. Male adults fly high above their colony site about 4 a.m. and sing the dawn song to attract migrating birds to their colony.”
Many Mid-South readers gave me considerable comments and advice on how to lure martins. Now that the martin season is here, maybe I will get results this year.
“An old TV antenna mounted just below your multi-roomed house may do the trick,” said Steve Crowdus. “Martins love to gather and court on those handy roosts.”
From Arthur Goodman: “If you really want martins to thrive, you need to encourage the growth of fence rows, thickets and rough field margins to support a healthy population of insects.”
Linda St. John said: “A Bird and Bloom magazine writer wrote that eggshells, cleaned and broken into small pieces and placed on the roof of the birdhouse or a nearby hedge, have worked.”
Bee Somers noted that “houses should be a considerable distance from trees or any structure so martins won’t feel threatened by predators (such as owls and hawks, which often rob nests and kill babies and parents). We get martins every year and think of them as family. They sing and sing and sing. We are excited when they come and sad when they leave.”
“Tommy” of Water Valley, Miss, said: “My Uncle Luther Moorman at Booneville, Miss., has 300 gourds, some 5 gallons in size, and condo houses. It would be worth a trip to see.”
B. Lee Mallory wrote: “I have done everything you wrote about--gourds, aluminum houses, ponds, open area--but in 15 years, living on 10 acres in Cordova, I’ve had martins only once. I have a few leftover gourds from our garden. The cedar post you erected on which to hang garden gourds during your boyhood at Smith Hill Farm, Ala., may be best, after all.”
Harold Burrows said he has gotten tips from several “experts.” His E-mail: “One person informed me martins don’t like the plastic gourds and I need to find the garden variety like your mother grew. Another person said I would never have martins until I changed the green roof on the house to red.
“I did this--still no martins. We aren’t upset, however, because bluebirds have taken over. My wife’s cousin, an ornithology instructor at Mobile University, said martins also feed on dragonflies, who feed on nothing but mosquitoes.”
John Winter brought me 55 homegrown gourds that we have painted white and that my daughters Sunde and Melanie and I have already put up. We hope the garden variety, as some landlords maintain, are more likely to attract martins than the plastic gourds because of their texture and darker interior. Melanie and many others have had good luck with plastic gourds.
Garden gourds are best, Jim Richie of Corinth, Miss, believes. “Come on down,” he wrote. “I will give you all you want. I have put 540 gourds in 10 different locations.”
Stan Walker sent this message: “I know a family of martins that would love to live on your farm, but it would require different accommodations. You see, they have three kids.”
The most unusual comment came from Fred Chisenhall, my former colleague on the old Memphis Press-Scimitar. Knowing that I am an inexorable Democrat, he said: “The way I see it, those were Republican scouts you saw last spring and they didn’t see much future in recruiting in Yellow Dog Democrat territory.”
If I have to switch my party allegiance to lure martins, forget it. I will be content with my pesky sparrows and jaybirds.
[This article was first published in The Memphis Commercial Appeal on March 25, 2003, and is reprinted here with permission.]
BIO: Hugh Frank Smith is a former columnist and copy editor for the old Memphis Press-Scimitar. He lives on a farm in Germantown. You can E-mail him at BugeSmith@aol.com .
Read more of Smith’s stories at these USADS links:
Growing up apart with Jimmy Carter
Deep South holiday travel
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COMMENT (referring to Growing up apart with Jimmy Carter
From Phyllis W in Michigan--
Mr. Smith: I enjoyed your article. I live in the Detroit area and I feel very fortunate to have been born and raised in the Southern tradition; there's something special about that lifestyle, you have to experience it to understand.
I was born in Union City, TN in 1951, and I return yearly to visit. My parents are both gone now, and I am so thankful my mom and dad left me with such precious memories of their lives so long ago - hard lives; your story rekindled some of those memories and I thank you for that--they have not been forgotten. I have lived up here in Michigan for a long time now. I am a registered nurse at St. John Hospital and although I do well, I always have a dream to live "back down South." You see? We Southerners are "all over" and still remain loyal to our traditions. I still (and will always) make my ice tea by boiling my tea bags, too!
Again, I enjoyed your article and I am glad I happened upon it; take care!