Ice House

Winter Is For the Birds. Specifically, Purple Martins.

When they arrive this month, the North American swallow needs to be cared for by Houston "landlords."

By Morgan Kinney December 29, 2017 Published in the January 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Local landlords are preparing for new tenants from the Amazon Basin as purple martins, the largest North American swallow, arrive this month in Houston, where they’ll stay through summer before flying back south.

After centuries of coddling from Native Americans and European settlers alike, the birds gave up on nesting in the cavities of dead trees in favor of hollowed-out, hanging gourds and opulent, apartment-style bird houses—hence the title “landlord,” the actual, preferred term for those who care for avian visitors. It’s a unique situation in which purple martins have become almost entirely reliant on humans during mating season.

The pampering usually occurs in a homeowner’s backyard, with the classic Sears catalog purple martin house resembling a Dutch Colonial atop a pole. The homes, available at any hardware store, require their landlords to clear them of pests and debris, and check for ailing birds. In return, martins serenade the landlord and devour moths, grasshoppers and dragonflies. Think of them as the bird equivalent of an outdoor cat.

“There’s no other wild bird that a regular person can interact with quite like the purple martin,” says Mary Anne Weber, director of education at the Houston Audubon Center, adding that other birds would simply abandon a nest if humans stuck their grubby fingers near their young.

Weber isn’t aware of an official tally of Houston martin houses, although the number is considerable. The mating season culminates in July and August, when birds collect in massive roosts—notably one in Stafford and one at Willowbrook Mall—to migrate back south in a flock so large it appears on weather radar.

Kind of like the Waugh Drive bat colony, we ask?

“Oh my gosh, it’s beyond the bats,” says Weber. “The bats are way exciting and cool, but this is half a million birds—I can’t even describe it.”

And yes, it must be emotional for the landlords, watching their tenants fly off into these clouds, although they don’t worry about lost rent; the same purple martins return to the same homes year after year, making them some of the best tenants around.

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