My Best Nest: A Purple Martin Story
The inspiration for the book
Purple Martin NestlingsEnemy #1: StarlingEnemy #2: House SparrowMartin HooligansFeeding time!Bird features"My Best Nest," the bookA tale of beginningsBibliographyUseful linksActivities for kidsStudent ExercisesFor librariansAuthor and contributorsBuy the book

My Inspiration for a Children’s Picture Book About Martins

It was a coarse piece of grass root that looked exactly like a miniaturized crane’s foot. Claire, the curator of the aviculture department at the International Crane Foundation, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, found it in the water bucket she emptied and cleaned while I was helping her tend a pair of Siberian Cranes in the summer of 1992. Claire placed the bit of root in her pocket.

My father also found odd items collected by birds. His special birds were Purple Martins. In his routine nest checks my father looked for items that were hazards to the birds, such as pull tabs, pieces of glass, strings, nails and bits of wire. My father’s colony was across the street from an elementary school’s playground so he often found items the children had dropped:  a locket, a lollipop stick or candy wrapper. One day he found a unicorn. It was a unicorn embroidered on a small piece of blue fabric. He gave the unicorn to my mother. My mother later wrote a story for Terry Suchma’s “Scout Report” about the various items found in martin nests.

When I spent six months at the International Crane Foundation, I learned how important it was to share your enthusiasm about a bird species. Educating others and telling them about the wonders of a species of bird and that species’ need for conservation are critical for a species’ long-term survival. We must actively recruit new guardians each generation to help the birds. Purple Martins depend on each generation valuing the species. Purple Martins need some of today’s children growing up to be their providers and protectors.

In 1999, I was thinking about my mother’s little article on nesting material and a rhyme began to formulate in my mind. There was no children’s picture book about Purple Martins. A picture book would be a very good way for adults to share their love of martins with children. So began my project to write and illustrate a picture book to help the martins. My parents, siblings and friends joined me in this “endeavor of the heart,” as James R. Hill III called it, to create “My Best Nest:  A Purple Martin Story.” My father, brother, Joe, and James R. Hill III allowed me access to their vast collections of photographs of Purple Martins. Dr. Charles Brown and Louise Chambers reviewed the early draft of the supplemental natural history section. The Purple Martin Landlords of North Texas endorsed the book. My father was a founding member of this group started by Gisela Fregoe.

The 33 illustrations needed for “My Best Nest” were done over a five-year period. Many required multiple starts before I succeeded in painting what I wanted. It took three weeks to created a one-third scale model of a martin house from cardboard to facilitate the drawings of the martin house in the story. Four decades of martin photographs were referenced. When I needed a photograph of a man and his young grandchild working in a garden, my father’s neighbor  and his neighbor’s granddaughter served as models. His neighbor was also a martin landlord. He and my father usually teamed to do their nest checks of their large, joint colony.

Purple Martins were a family tradition for my father. His father had a martin house on his tractor shed. His brothers had martin colonies. My father found great joy in tending and watching his martins. During each nesting season for over 30 years my father would spend his evenings watching the martins with members of his family seated at his side. Watching the martins as a family was a very nice way to finish a day.

When his neighbor died, the priest whose father had been a martin landlord interwove the neighbor’s caring for his martin colony into the eulogy. Both my father and his brother had the songs of the Purple Martin played at their memorial services.

As our nation becomes were urbanized fewer children experience the wonder of a martin colony. It is my hope that “My Best Nest” will help today’s martin guardians spread the joy of the Purple Martin and help inspire future martin landlords so the descendants of my father’s martins will always have people wanting to be their providers and protectors.