Authored by Courtney Rousseau, President, North Carolina Purple Martin Society, member, Wake Audubon
It was Friday, June 17th at 6:55pm. We had completed a hot but successful day of banding martins at Prairie Ridge Ecostation and University club. I had just finished dinner with my kids and we were watching TV at our home in Holly Springs, NC. Outside, a violent thunderstorm with high winds had just passed overhead. I was a bit nervous when I heard the winds swirling around, and looked outside at my purple martin gourd rack and pole. It had swayed a little bit but was undamaged. Our power flickered a few times, but stayed on. The chance of rain and storms that day had been low, so this one was a surprise. We counted ourselves lucky and settled in for an evening of Star Trek while my husband was away. Suddenly, I got a notification on my phone from a lady we had just met at our banding event that morning. It was Andrea Miller. She was frantically messaging me that the worst possible scenario for a martin landlord had occurred: the poles at University Club in Raleigh had blown down in the storm. Shocked, I asked her for a photo. Soon thereafter, I got an email from James Ivankovitch, the general manager out at University Club. He, too, informed me that the poles had blown over. I Felt panic rising in my stomach as I pictured gourds full of eggs and helpless young martin nestlings on the ground. I wondered how many had been hurt. My two sons and I went to the garage to gather up materials we might need for a rescue, and we started the 30 minute drive over to University Club from our house. While I was driving, I instructed my older teenage son to text the first people I could think of to help in this situation. In turn, those folks contacted others. When we arrived at University Club, we hurried over to the martin colony site to assess the damage. My worst fears were confirmed: Both poles were broken, gourds were in disarray, the house was on its side, and martin eggs and featherless young were on the ground. Upset adult martins circled above the housing. Nests had been tossed around inside gourds, and nestlings were buried under nest material. They were cold and weak. Two gourds were broken; fortunately, one of them was unoccupied at the time. All of the eggs on the ground were broken with the exception of one, which seemed to be hatching. I put it aside for a little while on a small towel, and as folks started to arrive to help, we broke into triage teams to work on individual tasks.
Some folks cut away the mangled owl caging. Others untangled gourds and set them right side up so that their occupants could be counted and checked against the nest check data sheets. Another group discussed how to put the broken poles upright again, and some folks brought personal items to help, such as flashlights, headlamps, and Hot Hands, which were used to keep featherless nestlings warm through the night. It began to grow dark. Andrea moved her car over to the course and turned on the headlights so we could continue to work. Surprise helpers showed up in the form of the Hastings family from Burkes Brothers Hardware, just down the street from the University Club. They asked what they could do to help, and brought Gorilla tape, some more Hot Hands, and tools from their store. Armed with a sawzall, Mr. Hastings was able to cut off part of the damaged pole of one rack so that it could be removed and set upright again on a surviving ground stake. The other pole on which the Lonestar house and gourd rack was mounted had a section which was completely mangled and had to be removed. The remaining length of pole was then put upright again on a pole connector. Both poles were now upright again, thanks to the lifting power of so many helpers.
We then began the task of returning nestlings to their gourds and verifying the contents of all of the gourds. I held the hatching egg in my hand during this process. As it began to warm up, the hatchling inside became more active and pushed its way out of the shell. We tried to find a gourd in which to place it, but the gourd that had the smallest young seemed to be empty now, until John Gerwin started to comb through the nesting material. Eventually, we found the two tiny occupants of the gourd. We placed a Hot Hands packet just under their nesting material and placed the young on top of it, to keep them warm. The broken gourd with 4 feathered occupants was temporarily taped and wired closed and hung back on its proper spot on the rack. Purple martins are very particular about their nesting spot; they remember the compass orientation of their nest cavity and will expect to see the cavity they recognize pointing in that same direction when they return, so ensuring the gourds and house were in the proper position was essential to help prevent the adults from abandoning the nest. After all gourds and house compartments were checked, we began the process of moving the wrecked owl cage and pole section debris to the side for later removal. We cleaned up our tools and headed home.
We did not realize how much time had passed; we were all there for a united purpose, which was to save these martins that depend on us for survival. I left University Club around 11:10pm and arrived home shortly before midnight. I didn’t sleep much that night, wondering if the adults would return to their nests in the morning, and if the nestlings would survive the night. The next morning, I made my coffee extra strong and headed out the door. When I arrived, a happy sight greeted my eyes: adult martins were swooping around and feeding their hungry nestlings. The tiny hatchling from the previous night was snuggled with its nestmates. A passerby on the golf course had stopped to watch the martins with his young son. I explained to him what had happened the night before, and he thanked me and all the other volunteers who cared enough to save these birds. Some of these volunteers gave up their family time, and others missed their dinners that night. Their efforts were an amazing testament to what can happen when we come together to accomplish a conservation goal.
Why did this accident happen? The two inch square poles had been in place at University Club for over 15 years and had survived many storms. However, the owl cages, which were added last year out of necessity, probably overburdened the poles just a bit. We tried to keep this weight issue in mind when doing nest checks, and never raised the racks more than two thirds of the way up the pole, but it may not have been enough. We will be replacing these poles for next season with stronger, larger 3 inch square poles with thick walls to better withstand storms and support owl caging.
I want to thank the following people who came out that night:
Tommy Hastings, Jeff Hastings, and their family from Burkes Brothers Hardware, Phil Doerr, Anne Miller,John Gerwin, Laura Eason, Bob Oberfelder, Andrea Miller, James Ivankovitch
and my two sons Graham and Lee Rousseau, who gave up their Friday night to step up!
We could not have done it without all of you!