Monday, August 12, 2013

The Man of the Purple Martins

Newborn purple martins at Cape May Lighthouse
Quick! Before the purple martins arrive in Brazil, I must write this. (How the summer has ‘flown’!)

Back in early July I was stunned to arrive at Cape May, N.J.’s lighthouse to find four really big birdhouses – bird hotels, actually -- being cranked from about 15 feet up down to eye level.  Inside each one were drawers. And inside the drawers were nests of tiny newborn purple martins.
 Naked in their featherlessness. Pink. Wrinkly. Vulnerable.
But cared for by more than their anxious parents, who kept arriving with the chicks’ favorite food – dragonflies – in their beaks.
Purple martins get human TLC
Also looking out for them were a couple of unretiring men who crank down the houses each day to shoo out other species like house sparrows and starlings, that commandeer the nests. They also order crickets to be sent overnight from Kentucky when the weather is so bad that the purple martins can’t find their favorite food, insects, on their own. (You fire the crickets toward the martins with a slingshot until they realize it’s food. Then they come flocking. Who knew?)
Such volunteers are called “landlords” in purple martin speak.
The day we were at the lighthouse in early July, the father of many landlords, Allen Jackson, 66, was there using special pliers to crimp tiny bands around the babies’ skinny legs.

 It’s a hobby – or rather, a mission – with roots in his childhood. As a youngster in Rhode Island, he and his father tried to nurture a purple martin colony, but failed because the management techniques now used were unknown. While working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in New Jersey, Jackson began setting up colonies on his own time – and then went full bore after retiring in 2002, the year he was also named “Purple Martin Landlord of the Year.”
 He’s set up 200 purple martin colonies in New Jersey and is a major force in the movement to rescue the species, which, east of the Rockies, depend on humans to create their housing. (Native Americans set out hollowed out gourds for them.)
Otherwise the bird, previously in a long decline, could be vanishing.

“I am one of those that stands by the fact that I am busier in retirement than I was doing work,” he said, as one after the other he gently held a chick in his fist and squeezed the band around its ankle, marked with a date and location.  “I’m going every single day. I love what I’m doing. My wife is ready to divorce me because I’m so involved in this.”
He came to bird banding naturally, he said, as he sat on a stool, a bucket filled with soft wood shavings between his knees.  “I grew up in the country in Rhode Island. When I was young, I used to milk a cow by hand. So this is very natural to me,” he said. “I’d rather work out of a bucket than anything else.”
This morning of banding was historic in a way. It was to be  Jackson’s banding marathon.

High tech has come to saving birds: banding is out,  geolocators are in.

With banding, if a human gets close enough to a bird, he or she can read where it was born and then wonder how it got to its arrival point.  With geolocators, which capture daily light records, analysts can retrieve the device and then use local sunrise and sunset times to pinpoint the bird’s migratory path.
So, now what will Jackson do? Is another transition in the offing?
“I will continue to do purple martins. I’ll probably start four or five purple martin colonies each year. It keeps me going all the time. I give talks, I have a slide program” and he motivates and mentors landlords for each colony.
In an interview in 2002, Jackson explained his love of the martins, saying, “It’s hard to believe a bird can have so much of an impact on a person, but it truly is a magnificent bird. I am fortunate to be in a perfect location for purple martins, not only to be able to have a martin colony, but to be able to work with so many other great people who also care.”
Caring. Making a difference to the world. Mentoring others.
 All ingredients for the next great thing.

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