Flying in from Brazil for a summer of love? A promising notion perhaps, but one can hardly imagine a more unlikely spot for nesting than the parking lot behind O'Connell's Pub on Kingshighway and Shaw. Strange as it may seem, 19 pair of purple martins flew in from Brazil this April to take up residence in martin houses installed 25 years ago by O'Connell's proprietor Jack Parker.
I posted a story about "Purple Martin Whisperer" John Miller, left, and his work with these migratory birds in 2013 (read it here). Miller recently suggested an interview with former CWEnder Jack Parker (Parker and his family lived on Pershing Place in the 70s & 80s), whom he says is responsible for preserving purple martins as a breeding species in St. Louis.
Jack Parker, right, became a purple martin landlord when the Missouri Botanical Garden (approximately 1/2 mile east of O'Connell's) removed martin housing to make room for The Kemper Center (the avian housing was restored later). Parker realized that the birds, who are entirely dependent on humans for housing, would be without lodging when they returned from Brazil that April. He put 4 aluminum houses on O'Connell's parking lot, which at the time bordered bustling Kingshighway, and hoped for the best. Not one tenant showed up that first spring. The following year the birds began nesting and ever since, martins have occupied every available apartment.
By John Miller's count, there are 90 pair of purple martins who summer in the City of St. Louis. Some summer in Forest Park (on the Probstein Golf Course and near Steinberg Rink), at the Missouri Botanical Garden once again, and the barren strip of ground I visited in early May that borders O'Connell's parking lot, above. The birds have adapted to the most recent* location, within earshot of heavy traffic on I-44 and adjacent to the busy service road that connects Kingshighway to Vandeventer.
*Thanks to Rich Donahower, VP of McGrath & Associates, (adjacent to O'Connell's on Kingshighway), who with the assistance of contractors working on the relocation of Shaw Avenue (which will eventually feed directly onto The Hill) the purple martin houses were moved from the front of O'Connell's property to the new parking area behind.
Purple martin "scouts" arrive during the first week of April. Over the next few weeks the rest of the birds trickle in. "Sub-adults" (year-old adults) vie for whatever nesting spots are available and if there's no room, they'll move on to other martin housing somewhere in Missouri, Illinois or farther north. What's another few hundred miles when you've already flown 3,000? In late July, the entire flock, including newly-fledged baby martins (26-32 days old), return home to Brazil.
The tenants, who are gentle by nature, don't fuss when the landlords check the nests for signs of trouble, or on that particular day, eggs (there weren't any as yet).
Being a purple martin landlord comes with many challenges. The number one concern is the weather. With the cold, wet spring we've experienced, the birds (day feeders) couldn't find their main diet of flying insects. In emergency situations, Miller supplements their diet with crickets he stores in his freezer, as martins can only last 3 or 4 days without food.
Another problem are "jumpers," i.e. baby birds that fledge before they are able to fly. It's a rare season that the landlords don't find a jumper or two on the parking lot. In most cases they are able to return the babies to their nests before it's too late.
In the photo above, you can see the birds swooping overhead as the nests are checked.
The Missouri Botanical Garden has plans to landscape the stretch of road, shown above, from Kingshighway to Vandeventer. Shaw Avenue (left) is being redirected to the road being constructed to the right, above.
Thanks to both John Miller and Jack Parker for letting me share this information with readers of this blog. While the interview earlier this month was brief - Miller had other tenants to check on, and Parker was headed to opening day at the racetrack - it was a chance to observe nature up close on a busy stretch of road I have driven past many times.
To learn more about these migratory birds, the Missouri Department of Conservation has a booklet John Miller helped update and rewrite. One of the many interesting tidbits I learned is that "The birds are a New World species only remotely related to barn swallows. Purple martins are a truly American bird; providing their housing is a tradition we've adopted from Native Americans. And here in the heartland, Missourians have a long tradition as martin landlords."