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Pastor's Blog

The Purple Martins

July 15, 2020


“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Romans 5:5

On a trip to Navarino a couple years ago, at the east end of the Pike’s Peak flowage, I watched a dark, almost-robin-sized bird hovering over the water as if it were fishing.  From the bench about thirty yards away where I was eating my cheese and pickle sandwich, the bird appeared to be dark gray only, no markings. But her ability to fly caught my eye. 


This spring, I saw two or three of that same kind of bird at the 80 Acre Flowage, while I was sitting on the bench there eating my cheese and pickle sandwich.  These birds stayed longer, gave me a bit more of a show, flying high, flying low, hovering.  The insistent, screechy squawks that accompanied whatever they were trying to accomplish got old fast. Because I was closer and because they stayed longer, I was able to see more of the features of the birds: they had forked tails and wings shaped a little like a seagull’s.  They were dark gray, lighter gray on their undersides.  The only thing that gave me hope for a picture was their hovering.  Which lasted about as long as it took me to remove the camera from its case and to find them in the viewfinder.

Then they were off again. 

With the dozens of other species of flashy flowers and butterflies I’ve been trying to learn about this spring, learning that gray bird’s story has had to wait until this week when we’ve been on vacation.

It didn’t take much research to discover that those birds were purple martins, likely females or young, since they weren’t dark or iridescent or even purple. Purple martins drink water by hovering over the surface of water as if flowages or lakes were flowers for them. 

Migratory birds who winter in South America, martins are able to fly that enormous distance and to return faithfully to the same nesting sites every year.  This ability among creatures from monarch butterflies to sea turtles to many kinds of birds is not unusual.  For martins, however, a human element has been introduced into their migratory customs.  In the 1700’s Native Americans and African American slaves made nesting sites out of gourds for martins to lure them back among them year after year, and who would, to return the courtesy, oblige.  But no one has satisfactorily explained why people developed this relationship to the martins.  Those who observed Native and African American people making homes for martins did so long after Europeans themselves had already been building them, so there’s no way to prove who originated the practice.  Or why.

Some say people loved martins because they ate mosquitos, though a 1968 study evaluating their eating habits has not corroborated that hunch.  Some say people loved the martins for their communal defense behaviors which kept hawks away from domestic fowl people commonly kept in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Still, as the non-native starlings and house sparrows spread across North America, martins apparently had no defense against them.  Starlings and house sparrows were particularly successful at supplanting martins by taking over their nests, destroying their eggs, and by raising two litters a year, not just one.  This unrelenting competition and the loss of habitat and decimation of insect populations because of chemical-dependent agricultural practices nearly eliminated martins in the US by the middle of the 20th century.  Thanks partly to J. L. Wade, an enterprising fellow from Illinois who begin designing, manufacturing, and hawking martin houses designed to sit atop poles, purple martin population recovered.  Wade advertised these high rise, high density living accommodations based with his dubious claim that martins ate thousands of mosquitos a day.  DEET on a pole.  Martin houses became such an eco-retail fad that now, in places where the practice of maintaining martin houses has been abandoned, the martin population is plummeting again. 

Which might be a welcome corrective to people living in the martins’ winter home: South America.  In South America, martins are on a six-month vacation from family rearing responsibilities, so they’re mainly there to work on their tans, roosting by the thousands on structures built by human beings, dropping their paint-melting poop on cars and layers of excrement in parks and playgrounds.  In parts of South America, they’re despised as much as they’re welcomed in the North. 

They do eat prodigious amounts of insects, though, a favorite of theirs being fire ants, especially the queens. We met fire ants in New Orleans while we were weeding a city beautification effort.  Fire ants are infamous for heaping up ant-breeding cities that antagonize people across the South.  In New Orleans, we were warned to look for and avoid portals for fire ant nests, since they will defend their colonies with an efficient fierceness: they swarm up onto you, sink their jaws into your flesh, and pump venom into you until they’re out of it or until you smack them.  The welts inflicted sting for weeks, bubbling up with pus. 

There is a species of ants in my backyard who are kissing cousins of fire ants.  Like their southern kin, they love protective landscaping structures exposed to the sun.  If you disturb a teaming colony of these ants as I did the summer I missed the Mission Trip to Pine Ridge, you can expect any exposed skin to be crawling with ants, and if you’re the least bit sensitive to insect stings, you can have itchy red bites for weeks.  I still have a few from a foray with them a month ago while bricking off a dry area under our garage eaves that is beaten by the morning summer sun.

I could use one of those martin houses myself.

Still, both ants and martins are particularly capable of working together to defend themselves against attackers.  In a recent BBC news interview, a doctor struggling to cope with the rise of COVID cases in Jacksonville, Florida admired how Americans worked together to defend the world from the plague of fascism that became World War II.  At the end of the interview, he lamented how the young people ignoring COVID preventative practices seemed to always only be thinking about themselves.  Stories have been told, however, about my grandpa’s relentless exploits to appropriate a disproportionate portion of World War II rationing stamps for his own family.  Selfishness is not somehow endemic to the young or to people born in this century.  It’s a plague that has always sickened humankind.  The ability to sacrifice one’s Self for others, where it’s not a matter of ant or martin DNA, is a strength wholly dependent upon our Creator, whose Holy Spirit, aptly depicted as a bird plummeting down upon the head of Jesus standing in the Jordan River, pours love into our hearts in our own baptisms. 

Which is our only hope.  And hope, the Apostle Paul wrote, 

“does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Pastor Larry


Posted by Ann Zehms