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Who Lures the Birds Back every Spring?

It is spring. The streets and parks are coming alive after a Wisconsin winter. People are greeting each other outside again, rushing to fire up their grills. Along with robins and the color green, the fake gourds made of white plastic are back, hanging from wooden poles in my local waterfront park

If you are like me, you have noticed these gourds at some point but don't really know what (or who) they are for. And maybe you have a vague awareness that they hang there sometimes, but not all the time?

After my first baby was born, I walked through Tenney Park at least once a day in order to get her to sleep or to keep myself awake. I noticed this: there are a lot of birds there, and birds of different colors, not just the brown chirping ones.

The story is, many years ago a bunch of Tenney-Lapham neighbors would gather in Burr Jones Park during summer evenings to watch the Purple Martins roosting in the old Box Elder trees. There were 4,000-5,000 of the large swallows! They filled the sky in swirling, swooping waves. 

The description make me think of the now famous urban bat colony in Austin. I've seen them fill the downtown skies at twilight and it is one of those things that moves you. 

Bob Shaw and Jim Sturm were moved. They  got grant money from the City of Madison and the neighborhood association to install the twenty-four Purple Martin houses in Tenney Park in 2000. Bob stores the plastic gourds in his garage during the winter while the birds are in Brazil. They migrate north, as far as lower Canada, to nest and breed. 

Bob watches the Purple Martin Conservation Association scout report to get the houses hung at just the right moment, after the first ones are spotted on the Illinois/Wisconsin border. 

Too soon and other birds will build nests in them. Too late and the Purple Martins may go elsewhere. It's the little things that matter.

"A couple of years we were a bit late and the scouts were waiting there for us to put them up," Bob told me. It took about five years before the birds started using the gourd houses, but Bob and Jim stuck with it, waiting. 

All I know about Purple Martins is thanks to Bob. (The fact that I still don't know that much is my shortcoming, not his failure.) From the links he sent me, I found this interesting: 
East of the Rockies they are totally dependent on human-supplied housing. West of the Rockies and in the deserts they largely nest in their ancestral ways, in abandoned woodpecker nest cavities. Keep reading...

Bob, and so many of our neighbors, do these little things 'behind the scenes' that are really not so little at all. I'm so impressed and grateful. I'm not a birder, so I would have never gone to the trouble in this case. But if I do the little things that matter to me, and everyone else does, too, then what we get is a really active, activated, inspiring community and place to live. 

Planting a few flowers in your front yard, picking up some of the leftover winter trash, or showing up at a neighborhood event, I do think it all counts. And, we could all do a little more, no?

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. -Howard Thurman and Amie Heeter

Photo by John Benson

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