My Best Nest: A Purple Martin Story
A tale of beginnings
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A Tale of Beginnings

In the night she heard the thunder booming above her village. It had been very loud and for a time the flashes of lighting had been almost instantaneous with the noise. Now in the cool of the morning while she walks with her uncle, father and two brothers along the edge of the woods by the small lake, she sees the old cottonwood tree. Peppered with woodpecker holes the charred and splintered tree lays in ruin on the soggy ground. She sighs and looking up at her uncle asks, “Where shall the big, blue swallows nest now? I so enjoy hearing and watching them. It is almost time for their return from the south.” Her uncle stoops down and looking into his young niece’s concerned eyes gives her a knowing nod of acknowledgment. He replies, “The birds will find another home. I know my sister, your mother, also enjoys having these birds near. It would be nice if the birds would find a new home closer to the village.” The path is slippery in spots. Her uncle cautions her to go slowly and carefully. She looks down often to decide where to step as they return to the village located a short walk to the north on higher ground, but as she glances at her father she notices that he seems to be absorbed in thought. He is a clever man and a capable problem solver. She wonders, what is he puzzling over?

Days pass and late winter is giving way to spring. The young girl hears the gurgling sounds and the joyful call of a big, blue swallow, a Purple Martin, her favorite bird. She wonders where will the swallow sleep tonight? At first the swallow is skimming the air a few feet over her head, but soon the bird is high above her village, a small gliding speck boisterously singing, the song of a male Purple Martin once again home over his nesting territory. It was just a few days before that the bird had finished his transit of the Gulf of Mexico, reaching land at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The crossing had been difficult as in the final miles the wind he was riding north had turned to face him and as he reached land his flight was labored. With his energy reserves diminished by the long flight he lingered in the delta region then resumed his journey when a gentle warm front brought favorable winds. He had ridden the wind north for a time before flying east seeking the old tree by the lake.

A few days later her uncle invites her mother, brothers and her to accompany him at sunset to the lake. Her mother seems to know this is a special walk to the lake as she smiles broadly when she takes her daughter’s hand. They begin their walk and her father joins them. Her brothers grin each time she looks towards them. They too seem to already know the purpose of this visit to the lake. The air resonates with the voices of the big, blue swallows as the family approaches the lake. There near where the old tree had fallen is a surprise. A young  tree has been stripped of its lower branches. Its trunk has been sheathed with cuttings from a locust tree so the new home for the martins is now armed against any raccoon that would try to shinny up to a nest.  At the top of the special tree, pruned branches remain and hanging among the branches are three dried, hollow gourds with entrance holes for the swallows.  Each gourd seems to have been carefully positioned so that a bird the size of a swallow may approach a gourd, but a large bird like an owl or hawk will encounter one or two arching branches impeding its flight. The young girl stands amazed, her father and uncle have made a new home for the swallows, and to her joy the swallows have accepted the home. The cheerful chatter of a female martin echoes from inside a hollow gourd. Soon the female martin is looking out through the hole in the side of the gourd. Another female martin is swirling in the air above the tree while two males perch on the branches that support the gourds. Tears coarse down her cheeks, and the young girl turns to thank her family. The family members talking in excited, but hushed voices watch the martins for a time. Evening stars begin to appear; her uncle, father and brothers walk away several paces and then the young girl sees two long, sturdy poles lying prone on the ground. Her uncle and father lift a pole. Her two brothers lift the second pole. The men are going to carry the poles to the village. As the family walks back to the village, her father and uncle say that it is their hope that the big, blue swallows will nest at the entrance to the village. They too enjoy seeing and hearing the birds and that while they have helped the martins that the martins will also help the village by catching insects, chasing the crows and hawks and alerting the villagers when strangers approach. Her uncle says she is to help by growing gourds for the birds and by collecting pine straw, which the men will place inside the gourds.

And so it was that over a thousand years ago a gift of love began a custom that continues to this day.

Ree Dellinger
copyright 2008