Purple Martins Are His Mission

TVT_7210_webIt’s business as usual at the Ford Assembly Plant’s paint department on Fern Valley Road on the outskirts of Louisville. Trucks roar as they pull in and out of the drive. For as far as the eye can see, there’s little more than sky and power lines, concrete, cyclone fences and industrial buildings.

It might seem like an unlikely home for a wild bird and his family. But this is exactly where 40 purple martin couples come to raise the next generation. In March, they fly into the plant, locate the same man-made nesting cavities in which they raised last year’s family, and start their yearly mating dance. The noise and the nearby trucks don’t faze them. Only a few feet away, Ford cars are being painted en masse. The fumes are so carefully contained that the birds are unaffected.

These nests are the passion of Larry Melcher who came to work at the Ford plant in 2000. In his day job, he is a pipe fitter and plumber who also works in maintenance.

That’s his job, but purple martins are his mission.

In 1998, his father, who farmed martins in the 1970s, gave Melcher an aluminum martin box as a house-warming present. Melcher confesses he did not, at first, know a lot about the species. That didn’t stop the martins from nesting in his box the first year he put it up.

“They found me,” he says.

Purple Martin on perchSo, two years, later, when he took a job at the Ford Assembly Plant and saw white plastic gourds mounted in clusters on poles, he knew exactly what they were: purple martin nests.

He asked around, and it turned out that no one was monitoring or maintaining the boxes. Being a purple martin landlord, Melcher explains, is a lot like being a gardener. Sure you can throw some seeds on the ground and hope for the best, but if you pull weeds and fertilize and guard against predators, you get a much better garden.

Similarly, you can put up a purple martin gourd or box and get purple martins. But you get more of them if you care for them. And, if they raise their young to adulthood, the martins will return from their winter home in South America to nest in the exact same place the following year. As long as they can be successful parents, they will ignore the trucks and noise and concrete.

Melcher asked if he could take over the plant’s martin boxes, and Ford said yes. Today, Melcher oversees not only the 40 nests at the Ford plant but also 70 at Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest and 52 at his home in Shepherdsville. He would like to expand his trail, but he’s reached the limit of what he can do without more help.

He didn’t become an expert overnight, but, as he went about caring for the nests at the Ford plant, people he worked with showed a lot of interest. They kept asking questions.

“I literally got tired of saying, ‘I don’t know,’” he explains. So he studied and connected with other purple martin enthusiasts. One thing he learned is that Ford Motors founder Henry Ford himself was also an avid bird watcher and purple martin admirer.

Armed with knowledge, Melcher modified the gourds to make them more habitable. He vented them and added guards that protect the nests from owl and starling predation and baffles that protect against raccoons. During the nesting season – roughly March through July – he checks the progress of the babies, from eggs to hatchlings to young birds ready to fledge.

All 40 nests are mounted on two poles. The nests are shaped like gourds, but they are plastic, which makes them more durable and easier to clean out when nesting season is over. They’re designed with a screw off cap that allows Melcher to check the progress of the young martins every week or so until they fly the gourd.

Purple martins used to nest in tree bowls and other natural cavities. But as trees gave way to houses and industry, the martins became dependent on man-made nest cavities. At this point in time, the species is entirely dependent on man for its survival. Without martin enthusiasts like Melcher, who work tirelessly to maintain nest box trails, the species would go extinct within one generation.

That’s the message that Melcher would like to share with the world. Without our help, there will be no purple martins. They need us and, without them, the planet would be a lonelier place. VT

If you would like to help Larry Melcher create more habitat for purple martins, email him at purplemartin@windstream.net. To learn more about purple martins, visit purplemartin.org.