This time of year, Craig Haddox doesn’t necessarily need an alarm clock to get him up in the mornings. The sound of dozens of purple martins outside his window provides a natural wake-up call — and he loves it.
He likes to spend his mornings on his second-story deck watching all of the activity.
“If I’m not working, I’m out here watching,” said Haddox. “They’re only here for about four months, so I try to soak up as much as I can get.
“It’s a good way to start the day.”
For 28 years now, Haddox has served as a “landlord” for this purple martin colony at his home near the corner of High and Horn streets in Washington. It’s a hobby he discovered as a teenager growing up in Marthasville.
“I’d ride my bike to all the houses I knew had martin houses, and I’d just sit there and watch them,” he said. “I didn’t really know what they were then until I went to the library and found out, ‘Oh, that’s a purple martin. I think I might want one of them!’ ”
Haddox moved to Washington around 1990 and the following year he put up his first purple martin house in the backyard, an open space without any trees — just how the martins like it, he said.
Trees can mean predators, like hawks, Haddox explained, noting he has seen a hawk swoop down and snatch a martin.
Over the years, Haddox has put up more houses for purple martins, both multi-compartment houses and nesting gourds. He currently has enough housing for 50 pairs, and that’s about as much as he can handle right now.
In addition to providing housing for the birds, Haddox supplements their diet during bad weather by providing crickets and, occasionally, scrambled eggs.
“They eat that stuff up!” he remarked, with a smile.
Martins eat flying insects, which are scarce on cold rainy or snowy spring days. The birds can even perish of starvation during prolonged cold spells.
“They eat on the wing,” Haddox said, meaning while they are flying.
The martins, which are native to North America, come here this time of year to nest and breed, said Haddox. In the winter, they go to South America. They begin returning to Missouri around March, depending on the weather.
“They’ll start laying eggs in May, and the babies will be born in June,” he said. “It takes them a whole month to fledge. Other birds it takes just a couple of weeks, but martins take a good 30 days.”
By the time the Washington Town & Country Fair rolls around in early August, all of the martins here are gone, Haddox noted.
Dependent on Humans for Housing
Many people may not realize that purple martins, a swallow species, are totally dependent on human-provided housing, said John Miller, a Missouri volunteer for the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA).
“As a species, purple martin numbers have been declining slowly for many decades since the North American Breeding Bird Survey (U.S. Geological Service) began doing bird counts in the 1960s, probably by one-half nationally,” said Miller, who manages colonies in Forest Park and at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and also gives a few programs each year. “In Missouri, the count fortunately has remained steady in recent years, and is estimated at about 300,000.”
Much has been learned in recent years about optimal housing and management techniques to attract purple martins, and foremost to get a colony to thrive, said Miller. Haddox, with help from his adult daughter Nikki Haddox, practices all of these:
• Good open location and housing with deep compartments to protect nestlings from predators and rain;
• Predator guards on all the housing poles to thwart raccoons and black rat snakes; and
• Supplemental feeding in early spring when cold rain or snow can clear the air of flying insects on which these birds feed and can perish of starvation during prolonged cold spells.
When The Missourian visited Haddox’s purple martin colony a week and a half ago, there were around 35 to 40 birds total, and they weren’t all paired up yet. New ones were still arriving daily.
Haddox said the babies that had been born here last year should begin arriving any day now.
“I haven’t spied any of them yet,” he said. “This will be their first year to breed.”
Some afternoons when the martins are away, Haddox will lower the houses to do nest checks. He’s looking to see how many pairs he has, if they have any eggs or there seem to be any problems.
“Sometimes I’ve opened the door and seen a female sitting on her eggs. She’d look at me, I’d look at her, and I’d just close the door back up,” he said. “The experts say you can move her out of the way to check, but I don’t do that.”
Researchers have found through banding studies that purple martins tend to return to the same places to nest and breed each year, as long as they survive migration. The Haddoxes say they are interested in talking with someone licensed to do banding about doing that with the martins in Craig’s yard.
“I think it would be interesting,” said Nikki.
‘It’s a Job I’ll Take’
Haddox works at Missouri Meerschaum corn cob pipe factory in Downtown Washington, but the care he provides for his purple martin colony is like having a second job.
Before the martins arrive, Haddox cleans and repairs all of the houses he has for them in the backyard. He takes them down each year after they leave and keeps them in storage until March.
He offers both the aluminum multi-compartment houses and gourds, both plastic versions and real ones, to give the birds a variety. He has noticed over the years that they won’t use just any house he puts up.
“I put up a plastic house once, and they wouldn’t even look at it,” he said. “I put these aluminum houses up, and they go crazy over them.”
Haddox has added a wire guard to the front of the houses to protect the martins from predators, like hawks. He also has added PVC pipe around the bottom of the poles to block other predators, like snakes or raccoons.
The price of being a purple martin “landlord” isn’t cheap. Haddox said the houses and poles can be pricy, although he has purchased some used houses through eBay.
Haddox has put up a platform near the martin houses where he places crickets and also nesting material for the birds to use.
“I bring corn shucks home from work, rip it up into little strips, and they go to town with that stuff,” he said.
Same goes for the crickets.
“After a couple of days of bad weather they’ll eat all the crickets I can throw in there,” he remarked, noting he ordered 3,000 crickets online this past winter, and he’s down to just one bag now.
The more Haddox has learned about purple martins, the more work he puts into caring for them and helping them survive.
“It’s a job, but it’s a job I’ll take,” he said, although he isn’t sure exactly what about purple martins that he likes.
He has an affinity for most birds — save sparrows and starlings, both of which will try to take over the martins’ nesting sites. Haddox does everything he can to keep those away from the martins. He wants the martins to feel safe in his backyard — that’s why they come back year after year, he said.
Haddox’s daughter and grandson, Zack, enjoy helping him care for the martins.
“I find it relaxing and interesting,” said Nikki.
Haddox loves sharing this hobby with them too. He’s hopeful that they take it over for him one day.
“Somebody’s going to have to take over, or else there’s going to be a lot of disappointed martins around,” he said, with a laugh.
‘Give It a Try’
The Haddoxes have seen a few purple martin houses around Washington, including at the KC Hall, although not as many in one location as Craig has in his backyard.
“Not a lot of people even know what these types of birds are,” said Nikki.
But they encourage more people who are interested to give it a try.
“If you have a nice open yard, try your luck,” said Haddox.
“Any place with an open area could be a good location to have a large colony of martins . . . the riverfront would be good,” he said. “They love water. Put a bunch of houses down there, and there’d be a ton of martins probably.”
People seem to love watching the purple martins. Haddox often sees cars pull over along Horn street to watch all of the activity in his backyard.
Early morning is the best time to see the birds being active, but evening is good too.
The martins do make quite a bit of noise, including a “clicking” sound that only the males make.
“When you’re right up close to them, you can actually see their throat move when they make that noise,” Nikki commented.
For this family, the sound is like music to their ears. If the neighbors disagree, they haven’t said.
“I haven’t heard any complaints,” said Haddox with a smile.
For more information on purple martins, go to the Purple Martin Conservation Association website at www.purplemartin.org.
“Our goal at the PMCA is simply to perpetuate the tradition of people hosting martins, and we encourage those who do to learn all they can,” said Miller.