Early each spring, the charming resort town of Fairhope, Alabama, welcomes special guests to its haven on Mobile Bay. The travelers happily settle into their cottages near the pier and enjoy a hearty welcome-back dinner of mosquitoes.
Purple Martins, to be exact, and they’ve had a seasonal home in Fairhope since 2000, when the late Garland Sims approached the city with an idea: install birdhouses along the bay to attract the insect-eating birds, thereby reducing the city’s need to use pesticides. The idea was approved and the first Purple Martin apartment house went up in February, 2001. Sims continued to work with the city and the Mobile Bay Audubon Society to expand the bird colony, whose multiple-family houses now number more than a dozen.
The largest member of the swallow family, Purple Martins are among the first signs of spring along the Gulf Coast, as they arrive from their winter quarters in South America. The birds are strong fliers and may travel as much as 8500 miles to their breeding grounds. Creatures of habit, they often choose to move back into their digs from the previous year, sometimes nesting in the same compartment of the same birdhouse.
The birds appear to like living near humans, and the feeling is mutual. Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians noticed Purple Martins nesting in hollow trees, and appreciated the birds’ insectivorous tendencies enough to provide them with hollow gourds to nest in. European settlers continued the practice. Today, the birds still like gourds though more elaborate apartment houses like the ones near the Fairhope pier are also popular.
Along the coast, Purple Martins nest from March through early June. Both parents care for the young, bringing them huge quantities of insects captured in midair. Though the birdhouses at Fairhope are constructed atop poles over the water, Purple Martins seem almost as happy nesting in backyard houses. The birds look for housing in open areas between 30 and 100 feet from human houses and at least 12 feet off the ground. They like an open flyway to their homes, enabling them to swoop directly in their front door with a mouthful of mosquitoes.
Today, Fairhope’s Purple Martin Riviera offers a message about the importance of working with the natural environment, along with the fun of watching the birds gliding gracefully over Mobile Bay.
For more information about the Purple Martin Riviera, visit www.mobilebayaudubon.org/Martins.htm.
Photos courtesy of Mobile Bay Audubon Society