Of all the vacation spots they can choose in the spring, Missouri provides a popular resort destination for purple martins. And when they arrive, there’s no shortage of hotels — Missourians set up birdhouses in their backyards every year in hopes of attracting these insect-eating, garden-friendly birds.
The purple martin is the largest swallow in North America, at around eight inches long with a wingspan of nearly 16 inches. A deep shade of rich plum, the birds are easily identified by their long, triangular pointed wings and slightly forked tail in flight. Their “chatter” and musical “chir-chir” can be readily heard around open, clean areas during the spring and summer.
This summer, martins are welcome to vacation in Ronnie Templemire’s “martin mansion,” a 4-foot-wide-by-5½- foot-high house with 102 nesting spots.
Templemire, 48, has been fascinated by martins for years. His hobby of building houses to attract the birds started years ago in a car.
“I was driving one day and I heard the martins in some gourds hanging along the highway,” he said. He explains that the birds’ chirping was so magnetic, he had to turn his car around just to look at them. And so his hobby began.
In the 12 years since that drive, Templemire’s martin hotels have become a favorite for the birds. He housed more than 500 martins in 2006, and at this time of year, he usually has more than 200 birds.
The cold spell this spring, however, may have slowed migration a bit, said Karen E. Martin of the Nature Society. It also may have resulted in some deaths.
Just the thought of martins dying from the cold and scarcity of food devastated Templemire. He said he did what he could to help.
“They were so weak they couldn’t even look for food,” Templemire said. “I held their beaks open and fed mealworms to them,” he said. Templemire said he saved about 60 birds.
Not everyone can be a purple martin hotelier. Margaret Muegenburg has no backyard to accommodate a martin hotel, but she imagines having a martin hotel with many guests would be like having a bunch of pets.
Muegenburg, who recently joined the Audubon Society, is fascinated with the birds because of their human-like attributes, such as bonding for life and providing for their young. But the reason behind her interest in the birds goes even deeper.
“I always wished I could fly,” she said, describing her thoughts when she birdwatches.
Muegenburg, along with about 70 others, learned about martins and how to attract them at a recent seminar at Songbird Station, a nature store on the corner of Forum Boulevard and Chapel Hill Road.
Besides their aesthetic appeal and the emotional connection many people make with them, purple martins preserve gardens by eating insects seemingly tirelessly. Fewer insects, along with the martins’ aerial acro-
batics, makes relaxing in the backyard a pleasant experience for both the birds and their hosts.
Songbird Station store manager Lisa Davis concurs, saying martins are “good for the soul” and good for the garden.