Bird lovers work to provide the perfect housing for persnickety purple martins
Tom Merritt doesn’t know a whole lot about purple martins, but he sure knows how to build splendid houses for them.
Merritt, a Tiki Island resident, began building birdhouses when he was a Cub Scout. The retired woodworker finds building the houses relaxing, he said.
Purple martins are members of the swallow family and eat mosquitoes and other flying insects. They are typically seen in the early morning and at dusk, gliding through the air as they devour their dinners. And they are famous for their persnickety housing standards.
Two years ago, Merritt was talking with J.P. Bryan, owner of Galveston’s The Bryan Museum, about martin houses. Merritt built two houses that were replicas of the museum building and gave them to Bryan as a birthday gift. Merritt spent about two weeks constructing the houses, using photographs of the museum building to get the details down.
The Bryan Museum, which showcases the history of Texas and the Southwest, is in the Galveston Orphans Home, which was rebuilt two years after the 1900 Storm.
“It was tricky to get them to look just right,” Merritt said.
Both bird houses are made of cedar. They are two levels and have 16 individualized compartments, four on each of the four sides. The roof and the top level can be removed for cleaning.
“Martins are particular birds,” Merritt said. “The houses have to be either taken down or cleaned every year.”
Chuck Doyle agrees purple martins are particular birds. Doyle has about 13 martin houses at his Texas City lake house. His houses also have individualized compartments. The martins arrived Feb. 19 this year, Doyle said. Scout birds come ahead of the flock, which usually arrives in March. The birds fly off at the end of summer.
Doyle orders his martin houses online. He gave one to St. Mary of the Miraculous Medal Church in Texas City, and his grandson built one for the church as an Eagle Scout project.
Islander Alice Anne O’Donell is a birder who has been collecting birdhouses for a long time. Some started out as art pieces, but the houses she purchased for her property are new birdhouses made to look old. She displays them as yard art.
Before Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008, she had a house for barn owls a friend had made for her, but bees took it over. When Ike came, it took the owl house out of the tree about 400 yards into a neighbor’s pasture. The owl house was found six to eight months after the storm, but there’s no tree to put it in now, and development in the area interferes with birds, she said.
During Ike, a huge wooden martin house floated into her yard on Eckert Bayou. It had 20 to 30 compartments for the birds. O’Donell thought it told such a story of Ike that she had the contractors put up a pole for the house in remembrance of the hurricane. She planted a vine at the base that now goes up the pole and surrounds the house.
Martins don’t occupy O’Donell’s purple martin houses, however. Swallows and starlings have taken up residence instead. O’Donell recently read that gourds are a better way to attract the picky little birds, she said. So, six weeks ago, she put up gourds for martins.
They’re not there yet, but soon, she hopes.
It’s all in the details
Many of the published plans for martin housing, and a few of the commercially manufactured houses, are made to improper dimensions, according to the Purple Martin Conservation Association.
Even some plans published in major encyclopedias, popular bird books, or by state and federal wildlife agencies, are incorrect, according to the association.
“If you consult 10 different sources, you’ll often find 10 different recommendations,” according to the association. “Part of the problem is that no one has ever scientifically tested the martin’s exact nesting requirements and preferences, until now.”
The Purple Martin Conservation Association is conducting such research. Although not all the answers are in yet, the association said it knows this: “A martin house must have compartments whose floor dimensions measure at least 6 inches by 6 inches but compartments measuring 7 inches by 12 inches are far superior.
“The entrance hole should be placed about 1 inch above the floor and have a diameter in the range of 2 inches to 2 and 1⁄4 inches, although martins are known to use holes as small as 1 and 3⁄4 inches. If your martin house does not have at least a 6-inch by 6-inch floor and at least a 1 and 3⁄4-inch entrance hole, modify it.”